Corruption and skullduggery was the order of the day in Whangamomona’s presidential election on Saturday but thankfully, none of the candidates or voters seemed to mind.
New Zealand’s tiny micro-state, nestled within mountain ranges east of New Plymouth, held its biennial Republic Day this weekend, attracting Kiwis with an unscratched itch for international travel.
The tongue-in-cheek celebrations attracted thousands, who paid $5 for their passport and voting rights in the poll.
The result was a tight win for the incumbent, John Herlihy, elected for a third term.
“I was quietly confident. A lot of people know me and I’ve done a couple of turns in the job,” he told AAP.
“I like to be involved with most things, whether it’s hay making or shearing.
“But I was bloody nervous this morning.”
If Whangamomona isn’t ringing any bells, further explanation may be required.
The dwindling town of just 126 people – according to the latest census – was founded by families from the nearby Taranaki in the late 19th century.
For almost a century, Whangamomona’s closest cultural and transport ties stayed with the famed dairy region, but in 1989, Wellington bureaucrats redistricted their town into the Manawatu-Wanganui region rather than Taranaki.
The response, styled by late local Stratford mayor David Walter, was to declare independence.
“We’re different around here,” Mr Herlihy says with a grin.
Mr Walter, who died last September after a colourful life at the age of 80, was also responsible for re-badging the local road.
State Highway 43 is now known as the “Forgotten World Highway”, channelling the area’s remoteness as virtuous.
Tourists are warned the 155km stretch includes no mobile coverage, no petrol stations, and just four public toilets.
Mr Walter’s marketing gimmick has crafted a new 21st century image for the town, ensuring thousands visit the otherwise overlooked region.
With COVID restrictions keeping Kiwis to stay-at-home summer holidays, this year’s Whangamomona Republic Day enjoyed another bumper turnout.
Visitors were treated to a feast of regional Kiwiana.
Some of the festivities were rural classics; sheep-shearing and wood-chopping competitions, a dog trial, whip-cracking and possum-skinning demonstrations, a sheep race down the main drag.
Others were more eclectic.
Punters could pay a dollar to guess the number of eels in a tank, or enter the ‘D.E.Walter Gutbuster’; a running race up a steep hill and back into town.
Locals were upset when out-of-towner Luke Hill claimed the Gutbuster, and the gumboot trophy named after one of the republic’s founding fathers.
Pride was restored later in the afternoon, when men clad in Whangamomona Hotel singlets beat allcomers in the tug-of-war.
And then came the dubious presidential election.
Mr Herlihy had trash-talked his chief rival, Bryan Ramage, in the leadup to the poll, saying the white-haired veteran “needed a haircut and had no political experience”.
Mr Ramage enjoyed a healthy advantage in signage, but Mr Herlihy came prepared, bringing thousands of pre-printed ballots with his name on them.
Hotel licensee Richard Pratt, enjoying his best day of trade since the last Republic Day, said he was torn on who to choose.
“I have to choose between my best customer and my electrician. Geez that’s tough,” he said.
“Both are pretty important keeping my lights on.”
Other voting irregularities were rife.
Ballots were seen flying out of the toilet receptacle used as a ballot box, and there were no restrictions on casting multiple votes.
Perhaps the impropriety shouldn’t have come as a surprise; previous presidents included a goat and a dog.
After a suspiciously short counting time, Neil Volzke, mayor of nearby Stratford, announced Mr Herlihy had won.
“A little bit of skullduggery is alright isn’t it?” Mr Herlihy said.
In a first for the republic, Mr Ramage will also hold office, named as vice president.
“Judging school pets day is probably the biggest job of the year. That’s one of my official duties,” Mr Herlihy said.
“And just being around.
“Everybody comes to Whang and they want a passport and they want to meet the president.”
Mr Volzke also announced a second poll – a referendum on whether to use traffic cones in the republic – had failed, with only two votes in favour.
Mr Herlihy was pleased.
“We’ve never had orange cones here and we don’t want them. We don’t need them. We have our own rules out here,” he said.