New Zealand’s Ardern is expected to win big
Polls heavily favor party of prime minister praised for coronavirus response
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern waited for the verdict of voters with polls predicting a runaway victory after widespread praise for leading a successful battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
The main question in Saturday’s election was whether Ardern’s Labour Party would win big enough to gain control of parliament without needing a coalition partner. Among the challenges for the next government: an economy severely wracked by the pandemic and loss of critical tourism revenue.
Voters, however, appeared more willing to reward Ardern for her handling of the pandemic than punish her for its blow to the economy. A poll Friday showed Labour with 46 percent, far ahead of the opposition National Party at 31 percent.
Her government’s response to outbreaks of the coronavirus — including some of the strictest lockdowns and border controls in the world — is attributed to achieving some of the lowest death rates in the world with just 25 recorded fatalities.
The election, originally scheduled for last month, was delayed by Ardern because of the coronavirus fight.
Ardern faced another unprecedented test last year after a gunman opened fire at two Christchurch mosques, claiming 51 lives. Her outreach to the Muslim community and backing of a bill that banned most assault-style weapons was applauded by many in New Zealand and brought her global recognition.
Her embrace of international cooperation and pan-national issues, including climate change, earned her the nickname “the anti-trump” among her supporters.
Despite Ardern’s star power, landslide victories are a rarity under New Zealand’s proportional representation system that delivers parliament seats to any party taking more than 5 percent of the popular vote. That may force Labour into a power-sharing agreement with the Green Party, showing between 6 percent and 8 percent in pre-election polling.
During campaigning, Judith Collins, Ardern’s rival who heads the center-right National Party, repeatedly sought to promote her credentials as a businessfriendly leader better placed to return growth to the country’s pandemic-battered economy, invoking the prospect of a leftwing coalition stalling recovery.
Early results are expected hours after polls close 7 p.m. Saturday, or 2 a.m. on the U.S. East Coast.
New Zealand’s recession may be more protracted and severe than that which followed the global financial crash, with Ardern’s lockdown contributing to a GDP contraction of 12.2 percent between April and June, and more bad news expected over coming months.
But more is on the ballot Saturday than who gets to run the country.
The election also includes two referendum questions concerning the legalization of cannabis and whether to permit “assisted dying” when requested, under certain conditions, by the terminally ill. If both pass, New Zealand will follow in the footsteps of Canada and some European states, although polling suggests a close contest on either issue.
Record levels of advance voting have occurred despite the relative lack of coronavirus worries. More than 1.7 million people — roughly half the electorate — voted early since Oct. 3.