New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern swept to an historic election victory and said she will use her mandate to rebuild an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic and tackle social inequality.
Ardern’s Labour Party secured the first outright majority in Parliament since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996 and, if preliminary results stand, its biggest share of the vote in more than 70 years. While Ardern is expected to invite the Green Party into her new administration, she doesn’t need them to govern and said she needs time to take stock.
“Over the next three years there is much work to do,” Ardern told supporters Saturday night in Auckland. “We will build back better from the COVID crisis. This is our opportunity to build an economy that works for everyone. We have the mandate to accelerate our response and our recovery.”
Ardern, 40, has captured the hallowed center ground in New Zealand politics with a blend of empathetic leadership and skilled crisis management that has also won her fame abroad. Her successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated those strengths, drowning out criticism that she hasn’t delivered on some key promises during her first term in office.
Preliminary results give Ardern 64 of the 120 seats in Parliament. Labour won 49% of the vote after a huge swing to the left in many urban and provincial electorates. The opposition National Party slumped to 27%, its worst showing since 2002. Final results, including 480,000 special votes, are due on Nov. 6.
Ardern will now have more scope to deliver the transformational government she promised when she came to power three years ago, particularly if the Greens are able to push her to be more progressive on issues such as poverty and climate change.
Still, she will be wary of alienating the many center-right voters she has won from National at a time when debt is spiraling due to the government’s pandemic response.
Government ministers were coy on Sunday about what the new administration will look like and whether it will move left or cater to the center ground.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to keep the faith of many people who have come across and voted for us perhaps for the first time,” Finance Minister Grant Robertson told TVNZ. “We want to be a government for all New Zealanders.”
Voters are rewarding Ardern for crushing community transmission of COVID-19 while countries like the U.K., U.S. and even neighboring Australia are still battling to contain the virus.
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.
The nation of 5 million people had gone three weeks without any cases in the community until today, when one new case was reported in Auckland. New Zealand has recorded just 25 coronavirus deaths.
National Party leader Judith Collins said she won’t stand down following the defeat and will work to rebuild her party.
Collins, who struggled to gain traction against the wildly popular Ardern during the campaign, pointed to the economic challenges facing the nation as it recovers from the pandemic.
“New Zealand is in for a tough economic ride and it is going to need better fiscal policy than we have so far seen,” she said.
National has been in disarray, changing its leader twice this year and suffering a string of scandals that eroded its claim to be a stronger team than Labour and a better economic manager.
By contrast, Ardern has been mobbed by crowds on the campaign trail in a repeat of the “Jacinda-mania” first seen in 2017.
The challenges ahead are enormous. The border remains closed to foreigners, crippling the key tourism industry, and unemployment is forecast to rise.
Labour is pledging massive spending on infrastructure to boost the economy and has said it will impose a higher tax rate on income over 180,000 New Zealand dollars ($120,000) a year to raise more revenue. But Ardern has ruled out implementing the wealth tax proposed by the Greens, who will have 10 seats in Parliament after garnering 7.5% of the vote.
Green Party co-leader James Shaw said he expected to hold talks with Labour over coming weeks.
“There are good reasons why they might ask us to join up with them in the next government,” he told TVNZ on Sunday. “They’ll want as large a majority as possible.”
Under New Zealand’s electoral system, parties must win 5% of votes or an electorate seat to enter parliament.
Labour’s current coalition partner New Zealand First got just 2.7%, bringing the curtain down on the four-decade political career of its leader Winston Peters, who served as Ardern’s deputy and foreign minister.
The tiny Maori Party may have secured one seat with a narrow victory in an electorate that will need to be confirmed once special votes are counted.
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