New Zealand's cliffhanger election ended in a stalemate Saturday, leaving maverick populist Winston Peters of the New Zealand First (NZF) party to decide whether conservative Prime Minister Bill English or his youthful challenger Jacinda Ardern forms government.
English delivered an unexpectedly strong performance to claim 46 percent of the vote, while the much-hyped "Jacinda-mania" surrounding Ardern fell short as she finished on 36.
"Of course we were hoping for higher... obviously we hoped for better," said Ardern, the 37-year-old who looked set for an upset win after taking over the centre-left Labour Party last month.
It could be another two weeks before the outcome is known, with Peters saying he was in no hurry to decide who to support.
The major parties must forge coalitions to reach a majority under New Zealand's proportional voting system, but all of the existing groupings fell short.
On the final count, English's National Party and current ally ACT had 59 seats, two shy of the 61 needed to win.
Ardern's centre-left Labour Party and its preferred partner the Greens were on 54, still needing another seven.
That means neither can govern without Peters' NZF, which claimed nine seats.
Peters, 72, a political veteran who has played the kingmaker in two previous elections, said he had an important decision to make and would not be rushed.
"As things stand we do have the balance of political responsibility and we're not going to be hasty with that," he said.
He added: "We'll make a decision in the interests of all New Zealand and New Zealand First, that is the whole country... that will take some time."
The campaign has been the most volatile in recent memory, with momentum swinging from English to Ardern and then back again.
- Tough negotiator -
English was in the driving seat to win a fourth term until Ardern took over the Labour Party last month.
She galvanised support for the ailing centre-left party, giving it a 20-point popularity boost to draw level with National.
But the "Jacinda-mania" phenomenon waned as English attacked her financial credibility while pointing to his economic record over the past nine years.
She appeared deflated addressing the party faithful after the vote, saying she had given her all and apologising for not achieving enough.
Ardern said she still hoped to become prime minister as part of a Labour-Greens-NZF coalition, despite Peters' historic differences of opinion with the Greens.
"I simply cannot predict at this point what decisions other leaders will make," she said.
"We've got a lot of work in front of us still, not too much revelry."
Greens leader James Shaw offered an olive branch to Peters.
"I know our parties don't agree on everything, but now is the time to put those differences aside and to work together," he said.
In contrast, English was bullish about his chances of securing a fourth-term government for National, a feat that has not been achieved in New Zealand for more than 50 years.
He pointed out that National outpolled Labour and the Greens combined, saying voters had shown a clear preference for the centre-right party.
"We go into negotiations with the intention of forming a stable government which enables this country to deliver for New Zealanders," he said
The result helps English make amends for his last leadership foray in 2002, when National slumped to a record defeat and won barely 20 percent of the vote.
Peters has shown in the past that he will back either side if the right offer is made.
In 1996, he helped install a National-led government in return for being made deputy prime minister, then in 2005 he joined a Labour coalition after being given the job of foreign minister.
"I'm a very reasonable person but I don't sell myself or my principles out," he said this week.