New Zealand’s Ardern is ex­pected to win big

Polls heav­ily fa­vor party of prime min­is­ter praised for coron­avirus re­sponse

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY EM­MANUEL STOAKES for­eign@wash­post.com

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.

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