By Laura McQuillan
Labour is talking up its chances of winning back the Maori electorates after Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples announced he will retire.
On Tuesday morning, Dr Sharples said he will step down when the party chooses a successor - likely to be at the Maori Party annual meeting on July 13.
He will remain in Parliament until next year's election, and as Maori Affairs Minister until shortly before the election, when he will "relinquish" the portfolio to the new co-leader.
His resignation follows a disastrous third placing for the Maori Party's candidate in Saturday's Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election, which Dr Sharples partly attributes to leadership squabbles between himself and Waiariki MP Te Ururoa Flavell.
Co-leader Tariana Turia announced last year that she plans to retire in 2014.
Their departure leaves their electorate seats - Tamaki Makaurau and Te Tai Hauauru - up for grabs, and Labour leader David Shearer is confident his party can win both seats.
"We're going out and trying our very best to get across the line in all of the Maori seats - that's ultimately our aim. Some of those are going to be easier than others," he said.
"Their two seats that they'll be leaving vacant are two of the seats that we have the best opportunity to win."
Labour MP Shane Jones, who was beaten by Dr Sharples by 900 votes in Tamaki Makaurau in 2011, is rating his chances next year.
"I'm confident this time around, perhaps with a bit more focus and the disappearance of [Dr] Sharples, it'll come back to mothership Labour."
Mr Jones says Dr Sharples "needed to go earlier" but the Maori Party can survive with Mr Flavell at the helm.
"But unless he moves away from National, he will be a victim of our campaign to win back the Maori seats."
He doubted the Maori Party and Mana will reunify to do a deal for the Maori seats, saying "I just can't see Te Ururoa ever accepting Hone Harawira".