WELLINGTON: New Zealanders went to the polls Saturday (Oct 17) with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in striking distance of re-election with an unprecedented outright majority after campaigning on her success handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ardern brought homemade cheese scones to campaign volunteers Saturday morning in Auckland and appeared relaxed as she awaited results, which will be announced later in the evening.
Pre-election opinion polls put support for Ardern’s centre-left Labour Party at 46 per cent, 15 points ahead of the main opposition Nationals but just short of being able to govern alone.
On the campaign trail, Ardern has been greeted like a rock star by people who have crammed into malls and spilled onto streets to cheer her on and get selfies with her.
Her popularity soared earlier this year after Ardern – who has dubbed the vote “the COVID election” – led a successful effort to stamp out the coronavirus.
There is currently no community spread of the virus in the nation of 5 million and people are no longer required to wear masks or social distance.
“Who’s better placed to keep New Zealand safe and who’s better placed to get us on track to recovery?” she asked repeatedly on the campaign trail.
Another theme has been “sticking together in uncertain times”, highlighting the charismatic 40-year-old’s leadership qualities, not just during the pandemic but in a series of crises during her three years in office.
These include the Christchurch mosques shootings in March last year, when a white supremacist gunman killed 51 Muslim worshippers, and the White Island (also known as Whakaari) volcanic eruption last December in which 21 people died.
“No matter what crisis is thrown my way, you will always be assured I will give my everything to this job, even if that means a huge sacrifice,” she said this week.
COALITION AND COMPROMISE
No leader of any political persuasion has achieved an outright majority since New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system in 1996, leading to a succession of multi-party governments.
If polling showing Labour’s support in the mid-to-high 40s proves accurate, backing from Ardern’s existing coalition partner, the Greens, would comfortably get her over the line.
However, they may demand a more progressive agenda in return for keeping Ardern in power, after a first term when she failed to deliver on some key promises such as improving housing affordability and countering child poverty.
Judith Collins, the combative leader of the centre-right National Party, has focused on the spectre of the Greens forcing Ardern to adopt a wealth tax aimed squarely at New Zealand’s aspirational middle class.
Collins, 61, sparked a rare flash of anger from Ardern with the claims in a televised debate this week.
“I have been absolutely clear on this multiple times - it is a desperate tactic and frankly sad,” said Ardern of the wealth tax claim, also calling Collins a liar.
The conservative leader, known as “Crusher” for her hardline policies when police minister in a previous government, was undeterred, saying National was best placed to steer New Zealand through a COVID-19 induced recession.
“I bring real business experience at a time of grave economic situation that we’re moving into now, and the ability to make decisions,” she said.
COVID-19 ELECTION DELAY
About 3.5 million people are registered to vote, with 1.7 million, or almost half, casting their ballots early, a much higher figure than previous elections.
The vote was originally set for Sep 19 but was delayed by a virus outbreak in Auckland that has now been contained.
Collins, who took over National in July after a period of turmoil when the party had three leaders in three months, said the false start had cost her campaign momentum.
National is polling at 31 per cent, which would be the party’s worst electoral performance in 18 years.
The polls had Labour on up to 61 per cent in July, but even if the more recent 46 per cent proves correct, it would still be a 33-year high for the party.
New Zealand has strict election day laws that do not allow exit polls during voting, which begins at 9am (4am, Singapore time) and ends at 7pm (2pm, Singapore time).
Under the country’s rules, media outlets are extremely limited on what they can report during the day, with election adverts similarly restricted, to prevent voters being swayed.
However, a firm indication of the outcome is expected within about three hours after polling booths close.
Voters also cast ballots in two referendums, one on legalising recreational cannabis and the other on legalising euthanasia, although the results of those votes will not be known until Oct 30.