Jacinda Ardern is on track to be re-elected as the prime minister of New Zealand, after the Labour party looked set for a landslide victory in the general election, attracting so many votes that it could become the first party in decades to be able to govern alone.
With more than 70 per cent of the vote counted, Labour had secured 49 per cent, with the opposition National Party on 27 per cent. Labour was expected to win 64 seats of the 120 seats in parliament, and Nationals 35.
The leader of the opposition, Judith Collins, congratulated Ardern on the her “outstanding result” on Saturday night.
The vote had become a referendum on Ms Ardern’s leadership of the country since her sudden ascension to power three years ago. The dismal results for her opponents suggested New Zealanders had rewarded her for her deft handling of the pandemic, which has so far spared the country the worst of Covid-19, although the country is now in a recession.
Labour’s strong lead began early on in the night, but as the hours wore on the commanding lead did not erode. Ms Ardern was expected to address supporters in Auckland shortly.
For months, opinion polls had pointed to a Labour victory, with the latest poll showing Labour 15 points ahead of the opposition National party, which has been beleaguered by infighting and disunity.
A record number of voters – more than 1.7 million – cast their ballots in advance, accounting for almost half of the roughly 3.5 million New Zealanders on the electoral rolls.
Ms Collins – the party’s third leader this year, who took over just three months ago – often preferred to criticise Ms Ardern’s handling of the pandemic or plans for economic recovery, rather than promote her own policies.
Crisis after crisis
Since coming to power in 2017, Ms Ardern at first drew a mixed response in the polls. But she has since risen to become New Zealand’s most popular prime minister of modern times – as she steered the country through crisis after crisis, including Covid-19.
Although New Zealand is now in its worst recession in decades, Ms Ardern’s decision to close the borders and enforce a nationwide lockdown saw fewer than 2,000 people become infected with the disease, and 25 deaths.
Ms Ardern, who has become globally famous as a progressive leader, emphasised kindness and co-operation during her first term, and told voters she needed a second term to deliver on her promises of transformational change.
During her first term, she banned future oil and gas exploration, increased paid parental leave, raised the minimum wage, and increased benefits for the most deprived New Zealanders.
But she failed to deliver on some of her key pledges. She ditched the KiwiBuild affordable housing scheme (fewer than 500 homes were built out of an original 100,000 pledged), scrapped a proposed capital gains tax, and made minimal headway on child poverty.
She defended her progressive record on Friday, telling an interviewer that change would not happen overnight.
“I am not finished yet … I take some flattery in the idea that I would resolve a decades-long problem in three years but I can’t,” she told Radio New Zealand, of her child poverty record.
A second term brings with it a slew of challenges for the prime minister, with the country facing a recession, poverty and benefit figures on the rise and climate-related weather advents becoming more common.
Ms Ardern’s image and popularity have been at the forefront of Labour’s re-election bid, with one Labour social media ad saying a vote for the party would allow New Zealand to “Keep Jacinda” as one of the top 10 reasons to vote for them. Analysts said it was a risky strategy for the party in the long term.
“It’s not clear what they’ve done and what they’re still planning to do,” said Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a politics professor from Auckland University.
“She’s not trying to win a mandate, she’s not trying to win anyone over, so while this appears safe for Labour, it’s actually a very dangerous strategy.”
Susan St John is a researcher for Child Poverty Action Group, and said the Ardern government had failed to rein in excessive wealth, to the detriment of the country’s poorest.
“There have been small improvements to low incomes but no transformative step changes,” Ms St John said. “Government promises on prioritising child poverty led to very modest reduction targets that are looking less achievable on the current settings amid the Covid-19 recession.”
Election fatigue was pronounced throughout the long weeks of campaigning, with voters and politicians alike seeming to have no appetite for dog-eat-dog politics in the midst of a global pandemic.
But it was Labour’s promise to deliver “stability” for voters – usually a National party slogan – that proved decisive, with many New Zealanders feeling too uncertain to shake up the government after such a trying year.
Ms Ardern has promised to halve child poverty by 2030, tackle the climate crisis and build more state housing. She has also promised to resuscitate the economy after a strict seven-week nationwide lockdown.
While Ms Collins of National, a veteran politician, was a known quantity, she was also divisive – loved and loathed in equal measure. Her upbeat energy appeared to flag in the final week of the campaign, as her defeat looked ever more certain, and she will now likely face a fight for the leadership of her party.
Ms Collins has criticised Ms Ardern for using “waffly” language and failing to deliver on her promises of transformational change. She said the prime minister offered “love and hugs” when what the country really needed was an experienced politician and business hand to lead them out of the financial crisis created by Covid-19.
But her attacks on Ms Ardern did not seem to resonate with voters.
Political analysts have described the 2020 general election as “weird”, “odd” and “bizarre”; and said it lacked the usual drama and scandal – as well as much coherency.
Ms Ardern’s popularity at home and abroad have transformed her into the country’s first “celebrity PM”, and coupled with her Covid-19 success many analysts judged her impossible to beat, saying her appeal as a leader stretched beyond politics.
As well as electing a new government, the ballot papers also asked New Zealanders to decide on whether to legalise marijuana and euthanasia. The results of the referendum questions will not be made public until October 30th. Polling has suggested euthanasia looked likely to become legal, but support for legalising cannabis has cooled.