Jacinda Ardern will govern New Zealand for a second term after the Labour party secured 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 90% of the vote counted, Labour had secured 49%, with the opposition National party on 27%. Labour was expected to win 64 of the 120 seats in parliament, and National, 35. It is the best result for the Labour party in 50 years.
The leader of the opposition, Judith Collins, congratulated Ardern on the “outstanding result” on Saturday night.
Speaking to supporters at Auckland town hall minutes later, Ardern thanked the nation for the strong mandate. She said elections “don’t have to be divisive” and promised to govern with positivity.
“I cannot imagine a people I would feel more privileged to work on behalf of, to work alongside and to be prime minister for,” she said to cheers.
“Tonight’s result does give Labour a very strong and a very clear mandate.”
It is an extraordinary night for Labour, which might not have to rely on a minor party to form a government.
The vote had become a referendum on 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 it is now in a recession.
Labour’s strong lead began early on in the night, but as the hours passed the commanding lead continued.
For months, opinion polls had pointed to a Labour victory, with the latest poll showing Labour 15 points ahead of National, 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.
Collins – National’s third leader this year, having taken over just three months ago – often preferred to criticise Ardern’s handling of the pandemic or plans for economic recovery, rather than promote her own policies.
After coming to power in 2017 Ardern drew a mixed response in the polls. But she has since risen to become New Zealand’s most popular prime minister of modern times, steering the country through crisis after crisis, including Covid-19.
Although New Zealand is now in its worst recession in decades, Ardern’s decision to close the borders and enforce a nationwide lockdown meant fewer than 2,000 people become infected with coronavirus and 25 people died.
Ardern, who has become globally famous as a progressive leader, emphasised kindness and cooperation 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 events becoming more common.
Labour’s ‘dangerous strategy’
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, a researcher for Child Poverty Action Group, 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,” 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.
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.