Ardern sweeps New Zealand polls, rewarded for tackling COVID-19
‘It was way over the line. We want to show them our power and that we can’t accept this,’ said Tang, a 27-year-old office worker among thousands gathered at the Lat Phrao station
WELLINGTON: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered the biggest election victory for her centre-let Labour Party in half a century on Saturday as voters rewarded her for a decisive response to COVID-19.
The mandate means Ardern, 40, could form the first single-party government in decades and will face the challenge of delivering on the progressive transformation she promised but failed to deliver in her first term, where Labour shared power with a nationalist party.
“Thank you to the many people who gave us their vote, who trusted us to continue leading New Zealand’s recovery,” the 40-year-old told cheering supporters.
Ardern had dubbed the vote “the Covid election” and campaigned on her government’s success in eliminating community transmission of the virus, which has caused just 25 deaths in a population of five million. Opposition leader Judith Collins conceded an “outstanding result” for Labour and congratulated Ardern on her win.
“Boy, we knew it was going to be a tough campaign,” said Collins, whose conservative National Party is expected to take around 35 seats ater its worst result in nearly 20 years.
Collins, who took over the National Party in July ater a period of turmoil when the party had three leaders in three months, said the false start had cost her campaign momentum.
Her pitch for the top job had focused on the spectre of the Greens forcing Ardern to adopt a wealth tax aimed at the nation’s aspirational middle class.
The conservative leader, known as “Crusher” for her hardline policies when police minister in a previous government, has vowed to stay on as leader regardless of the result.
“This is a historic shit,” said political commentator Bryce Edwards of Victoria University in Wellington, describing the vote as one of the biggest swings in New Zealand’s electoral history in 80 years.
Labour was on track to win 64 of the 120 seats in the country’s unicameral parliament, the highest by any party since New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system in 1996.
Ardern, 40, promised supporters she would build an economy that works for everyone, create jobs, train people, protect the environment and address climate challenges and social inequalities.
“We are living in an increasingly polarised world,” she said.
“A place where more and more have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view. I hope that with this election, New Zealand has shown that this is not who we are.”
Labour had 49.0% of the votes, far ahead of
National at 27%, the Electoral Commission said, with 95% of ballots counted.
Ardern said she would wait until the final result to say if her government would include smaller groups like the Green Party, a former coalition partner that secured a bigger 8% mandate.
National leaders were decimated in their strongholds by young Labour candidates who appealed to voters with progressive, democratic messages, and highlighted the party’s success in beating coronavirus.
“The last seven months of this government, all of the issues around their past promises have been put aside because of COVID-19. It’s that simple,” said Deputy National leader Gerry Brownlee who lost his long-held seat.
Despite the election’s tilt to the let, Ardern “is likely to continue to chart a centrist course, largely aiming to implement incremental change that she hopes will outlast a future change in government,” because she owes her victory to centre-right voters who previously supported National, said Geoffrey Miller, analyst at political website Democracy Project.
The prime minister won global acclaim for her handling of a mass shooting last year by a white supremacist in Christchurch, with her inclusive “be strong, be kind” mantra and swit action to ban guns.
She burnished that reputation this year with a “go hard, go early” approach to the new coronavirus, which has eliminated locally spread COVID-19 in the nation.
The election was delayed by a month ater new COVID-19 infections in Auckland that led to a second lockdown in the country’s largest city.
While known internationally for promoting progressive causes such as woman’s rights and social justice, at home Ardern faced criticism that her government failed on a promise to be transformational. Life is back to normal in New Zealand, but its borders are still shut, its tourism sector is bleeding and economists predict a lasting recession ater the harsh lockdowns.
The economy shrank at an 12.2% annual clip in the second quarter, its steepest drop since the Great Depression.
Debt is forecast to rise to 56% of gross domestic product from less than 20% before the pandemic.
New Zealanders also voted on Saturday in referendums to legalise euthanasia and recreational marijuana, with results to be announced on Oct.30. The later vote could make New Zealand only the third country in the world to allow the adult use and sale of cannabis nationwide, ater Uruguay and Canada.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in a wave of protests across Bangkok and other Thai cities on Saturday in defiance of a government crackdown following three months of demonstrations aimed at the prime minister and monarchy.
Many protesters said they had been stirred into action by the police’s use of water cannon on Friday to disperse thousands of youth-led protesters who included many children.
“It was way over the line. We want to show them our power and that we can’t accept this,” said Tang, a 27-year-old office worker among thousands of people who gathered at the Lat Phrao station in the capital Bangkok.
Police atempts to thwart protesters by shuting down Bangkok’s public transport network backfired when it led to localised protests across the city involving three main centres and several other smaller demonstrations. There were demonstrations in at least six cities outside Bangkok too.
Police did not intervene, and the protests dispersed ater several hours.
“We will primarily negotiate,” police spokesman
Yingyos Thepjamnong told a news conference. “Enforcing the law will be step by step, using methods that follow international standards.”
Protesters demand the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military ruler. They have also become openly critical of King Maha Vajiralongkorn despite lese majeste laws that can mean 15 years in jail for insulting the monarchy.
On Thursday, the government banned all political gatherings of five or more people. Police have arrested more than 50 people - including several protest leaders - in the past week.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told Reuters: “There is no win or lose for any side. It’s all damage to the country.”
The Royal Palace has made no comment on the protests but the king has said Thailand needs people who love the country and the monarchy.
Protesters say Prayuth engineered last year’s election to keep the power he seized in a 2014 coup - an accusation he denies. They say the monarchy has helped perpetuate years of political influence by the army and seek to curb its powers.
The protesters at Lat Phrao chanted “Prayuth get out” as well as coarser refrains.
“I condemn those who cracked down on the protesters and those who ordered it. You all have blood on your hands,” protest leader Tatep Ru ang pr apaik it se rees ai date rbeingf reed on bail following his arrest on Friday.
Bail was also granted to one of two activists charged with trying to harm the queen - rarely used charges that carry a potential life sentence - ater protesters shouted at her motorcade on Wednesday.
The king and queen spend most of their time in Europe and are on their longest visit to Thailand this year.
The king is mostly resident in Germany and a German diplomat said the government was closely monitoring political developments in Thailand.
“Further violent clashes should be avoided. Peaceful expression must be possible,” the diplomat said.
Human rights groups have condemned the dozens of arrests and the use of force against peaceful protests.
“Concerned governments and the United Nations should speak out publicly to demand an immediate end to political repression by the Prayuth administration,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The king has not commented publicly on the protests. Nightly TV news on the royal family showed him addressing former members of the long-defunct Communist Party of Thailand who had been given land as part of a reconciliation program in the late 1970s under the patronage of Vajiralongkorn’s father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“Currently, one should understand that the country needs people who love the nation and love the monarchy,” the king said.
Prayuth’s declaration of a state of emergency said the measure was necessary because “certain groups of perpetrators intended to instigate an untoward incident and movement in the Bangkok area by way of various methods and via different channels, including causing obstruction to the royal motorcade.”
↑ New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern is congratulated by her partner Clarke Gayford following her election victory in Auckland.