Māori King to publicly endorse Māori Party candidate in Hauraki-Waikato

There have been strong words from King Tuheitia as he endorses tribal leader Rahui Papa, the Māori Party's expected candidate for the Hauraki-Waikato electorate.

"I challenge every one of us...Find the right place for your skills and move out of the way for the people that can truly lead us", King Tuheitia said at Parawera Marae, south of Hamilton on Thursday afternoon where local celebrations are being held in honour of the Māori King. 

"We all deserve no less than the best leadership on offer.

"She's going right back to the backbench now. To me, she's got no mana in there now," King Tuheitia said of Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta's demotion in the party.

After more than 20 years of supporting Ms Mahuta as their electorate MP, voters in Hauraki-Waikato have a major decision ahead of them. 

Rahui Papa has for many years been a key figure within King Tuheitia's inner circle. He is currently the chairman of Te Arataura the tribal executive of Waikato-Tainui.

Mr Papa is set to challenge Ms Mahuta for the seat. It will be the closest race the electorate has seen in decades.

Nanaia Mahuta has maintained a strong majority of the vote for over 20 years. She is the daughter of the late Sir Robert Mahuta, brother to the late Māori Queen Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu.

And while Mr Papa does not have equally as strong whakapapa, his own tribal leadership record and endorsement by King Tuheitia make him a serious contender.

The move is a major power play for the Māori seats led by Māori Party chairman Tukoroirangi Morgan, another of the Māori King's closest advisors.

Māori King to publicly endorse Rahui Papa in Hauraki-Waikato
Māori King Tuheitia Paki with Rahui Papa and Tukoroirangi Morgan at Parawera Marae (Maiki Sherman/ Newshub)

King Tuheitia usually only speaks publicly once a year at his coronation celebrations. Thursday's announcement breaks that tradition. It's a bold move which follows the King's surprise announcement in his annual address last year that he would no longer be voting for Labour, instead throwing his support behind the Māori Party and Mana.

But aside from the major contest about to get underway in Hauraki-Waikato, the King is also effectively sparking a referendum on his leadership. Whether King Tuheitia has strong influence over his people will also be revealed on September 23.

Nanaia Mahuta has been a loyal servant of her people in Parliament. The question voters are facing now is whether that loyalty is reciprocated, or if they heed the call of the King and switch allegiances.

The strategy could also have strong influence over the entire election. If the Māori Party can secure two or three seats and the National Party polls well, it could see them edge across the line to form a government without Winston Peters.