New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern participates in a televised debate with National leader Judith Collins in Auckland, New Zealand, September 22 2020. Picture: FIONA GOODALL/REUTERS
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern participates in a televised debate with National leader Judith Collins in Auckland, New Zealand, September 22 2020. Picture: FIONA GOODALL/REUTERS

Auckland — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looks set for a resounding election victory on Saturday as voters applaud her masterful handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ardern’s Labour Party had 46% support in the latest opinion poll while the main opposition National Party had 31%. With its ally the Green Party on 8%, Labour is on track for a comfortable majority in parliament.

New Zealand’s success in crushing community transmission of Covid-19 stands in stark contrast to countries such as the UK, US and even neighbouring Australia, where authorities are still battling to contain the virus. That has not been lost on voters, who have mobbed Ardern on the campaign trail in a repeat of the “Jacinda-mania” that accompanied her rise to power three years ago.

“For so many voters it comes down to Ardern,” said Bryce Edwards, a political analyst at Victoria University in Wellington. “Her leadership during this crisis has led to what we’re seeing, which is a landslide for Labour.”

Polling stations in the nation of 5-million people close at 7pm local time on Saturday and a provisional result is due at about midnight.

Ardern has captured the hallowed centre ground in New Zealand politics with a blend of empathetic leadership and skilled crisis management that has also won her fame abroad. The pandemic has given her a stage on which to display that leadership, drowning out criticism that she has not delivered on some key promises during her first term in office.

Ardern has put the government’s pandemic response at the forefront of her bid for a second term, urging voters to trust it to keep the virus out and navigate an economic recovery.

Her opponent, National Party leader Judith Collins, has offered temporary tax cuts to spur growth while attacking Ardern for policy failures.

Both major parties are pledging huge spending on infrastructure to boost the economy. With government debt set to spiral, Labour would impose a higher tax rate on income over NZ$180,000 ($120,000) a year to raise more revenue.

The challenges ahead are enormous. The border remains closed to foreigners, crippling the key tourism industry, and unemployment is forecast to rise. But Collins has not been able to gain traction with voters still focused on Ardern’s pandemic success.

In the battle against Covid-19, Ardern was alone among her Western peers in pursuing an explicit elimination strategy and imposed one of the strictest nationwide lockdowns in the world.

The economy suffered its most severe contraction since the Great Depression, slumping 12.2% in the second quarter, but the lockdown wiped out community spread of the virus and restrictions were removed sooner than in many other countries. After more than 100 days without community transmission, an outbreak flared in largest city Auckland, but that was also quickly stamped out.

New Zealand has now gone three weeks without any cases in the community, with all new infections limited to returned overseas travellers undergoing mandatory quarantine. The nation has recorded just 25 coronavirus deaths.

Under Ardern, New Zealand has taken a nuanced foreign-policy stance towards China, trying not to antagonise its largest trading partner while staying in line with the US and its other Western allies in the “Five Eyes alliance”. This approach has so far helped it to avoid the souring of relations Australia is now experiencing with Beijing.

Labour’s ascendancy under Ardern has overshadowed her current coalition partner New Zealand First, which at 3% is polling below the 5% it needs to be returned to parliament. The election may therefore bring the curtain down on the political career of its leader, Winston Peters, a maverick who has often held the balance of power.

The libertarian ACT Party has seen its fortunes rise at the expense of both New Zealand First and National. ACT had 8% support in the latest poll.

New Zealand’s proportional representation electoral system lends itself to coalitions, with no party managing to secure an outright majority since its introduction in 1996. Labour is expected to govern with the Greens, which may see the next administration address issues such as poverty and climate change more actively.

Ardern has been criticised for failing to deliver the transformational government she promised at the outset of her first term.

She ditched plans for a capital-gains tax that might have addressed the widening gap between rich and poor. A programme to build tens of thousands of new homes to help fix a housing crises fell well short of goals, and environmental groups say her climate-change policies are too tame.

“They have been timid in pushing things through on poverty and housing,” said Shamubeel Eaqub, an economist and public policy consultant at Sense Partners in Auckland. “But if you think there are risks on the horizon and there will be more crises to deal with, you want someone you think is going to be a good leader under pressure. I think Ardern has earned that trust and confidence.”


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