(MICHAEL FOX, HAMISH RUTHERFORD AND TRACY WATKINS, stuff.co.nz)
Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples is poised to stand down as party leader although he will remain an MP until the next election.
The Maori Party confirmed last night Sharples would be holding a press conference this morning to announce his decision about the leadership, but would not say more.
Sharples has been under pressure for months to stand down after co-leader Tariana Turia made it clear she considered it was time for a change.
He planned to remain minister and Tamaki Makaurau MP until next year’s election, he told the New Zealand Herald. He will not run for Parliament next year.
“Our people deserve a unified Maori Party. I would have liked to have provided stability after Tariana [Turia] left. However, no individual is bigger than the party. So, for the purposes of unity, I have decided to resign,” he told the paper.
Waiariki MP Te Ururoa Flavell has challenged for the leadership but Sharples has previously refused to stand aside.
He will remain co-leader until the election of a new one at the AGM in Whakatane in two weeks.
Rumours started circulating yesterday evening that Sharples was stepping down after the party’s poor showing in the Ikaroa Rawhiti by-election. Division over the leadership was held partly to blame.
Sharples had previously vowed to “lead until I’m dead”.
Flavell said last night he had not spoken to Sharples but had received a number of calls suggesting the leadership was up in the air. He did not know what was happening, however.
“Until I get any news I don’t know what’s happening. I haven’t heard anything.”
Throughout yesterday Sharples had denied he would be stepping down, and even fired shots at Flavell and the Maori Party’s national board for not putting the issue to bed.
”I am the one challenged, and yet I have support from out in the rohe, in the different regions, from different Maori tribal leadership…as well as grassroots Maori.”
He told Radio New Zealand yesterday that divisions in the leadership were hurting the party, and he hoped the matter would be settled at the party’s annual conference in Whakatane at the end of next week.
Sharples had also gone on the offensive over the party’s future, saying Labour leader David Shearer – who has also faced leadership rumours – should look at his own situation before attacking others.
”We will not fly the white flag simply because others believe it is in their best interest for us to do so. Our motivation remains as it ever was.”
Last night the Prime Ministers’ office said it was not aware of Sharples announcement, suggesting he will continue in his role as Minister of Maori Affairs until the election.
Commentators had already been predicting that Sharples would struggle to hold onto his seat, with Labour’s Shane Jones promising to campaign hard for the seat.
Prime Minister John Key had played down the risk of the Maori Party becoming closer to Mana.
”In the end any political party needs to work out where they think its future rests and where it’s going to earn the most number of votes going into election 2014.”
Left wing commentator Matt McCarten said senior Maori Party figures were pushing for an attempt to mend bridges between the two parties.
Without an agreement between the two he believed that Labour could win at least two more seats off the Maori Party, possibly all three.