Wellington: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern swept to an emphatic victory in New Zealand’s general election and said she would use her mandate to rebuild an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic and tackle social inequality.
“Over the next three years there is much work to do,” she told supporters Saturday night in Auckland. “We will build back better from the Covid crisis. We have the mandate to accelerate our response and our recovery.”
With 87% of the vote counted, Ardern’s Labour Party had 49% support — heading to its biggest share of the vote since the 1930s — 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.
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.
Ardern said she would govern for all New Zealanders and declined to say whether she would invite the Green Party into her government until final results were in. The Greens had 7.6% of the vote.
The landslide victory will give Ardern more scope to deliver the transformational government she promised when she came to power three years ago, particularly if the Greens push her to be more progressive on issues such as poverty and climate change. Still, she will be wary of alienating centrist voters with increased social spending at a time when debt is spiraling due to the government’s pandemic response.
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.
National in disarray
Main opposition National Party leader Judith Collins conceded defeat in a speech earlier, saying she had spoken to Ardern to congratulate her.
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.
In the battle against Covid, 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 travelers undergoing mandatory quarantine. The nation has recorded just 25 coronavirus deaths.
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 pledged to impose a higher tax rate on income over NZ$180,000 ($120,000) a year to raise more revenue. Ardern has ruled out implementing the wealth tax proposed by the Greens.