Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party was poised for a landslide victory in New Zealand’s general election on Saturday, and possibly the first single-party government in decades.
Labour was on track to win 66 of the 120 seats in the country’s unicameral parliament, the highest by any party since New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system in 1996.
If Labour wins more than half the seats, Ardern could form the first single-party government under the current system.
“This is a historic shift,” political commentator Bryce Edwards of Victoria University in Wellington said, describing the vote as one of the biggest swings in New Zealand’s electoral history in 80 years.
“This is new ground,” he said.
Labour had 50.1 percent of the votes, ahead of the opposition National Party of Judith Collins at 26.2 percent the Electoral Commission said, with 40 percent of ballots counted in an election that was largely a referendum on Ardern’s aggressive handling of COVID-19.
“If these numbers hold, it will be a very strong mandate,” said Finance Minister Grant Robertson, a Labour MP. “People were very grateful and very happy with how we’ve handled COVID, they like the shape of the plan that we’ve got going forward from here for the economy.”
Geoffrey Miller, an analyst at political website Democracy Project, said the victory was “very much a personal triumph for Jacinda Ardern’s ‘superstar’ popularity and brand”.
Of Ardern’s current coalition partners, the nationalist New Zealand First Party had 2.4 percent and the Green Party eight percent. If she is unable to form a Labour-only government, she is expected to continue to rely on the minor Greens while jettisoning New Zealand First.
A Labour-Green coalition would be the first fully left-leaning government in decades, a scenario that National’s Collins warned would mean more taxes and an environment hostile to business.
Ardern, 40, has pledged to raise taxes on top earners, while Collins promised short-term tax cuts, but they have otherwise shown few major differences on policy.
National’s deputy leader Gerry Brownlee said it was too early to concede defeat but acknowledged “the Jacinda Ardern effect” on the race.
Brownlee was trailing by thousands of votes in his electorate in a National stronghold in Christchurch.
‘Be strong, be kind’
The prime minister won global acclaim for her handling of a mass shooting last year by a white supremacist in Christchurch, with her inclusive “be strong, be kind” mantra and swift action to ban guns.
She burnished that reputation this year with a “go hard, go early” approach to the new coronavirus, which has eliminated locally spread COVID-19 in the nation.
The election was delayed by a month after new COVID-19 infections in Auckland, that led to a second lockdown in the country’s largest city.
While known internationally for promoting progressive causes such as woman’s rights and social justice, at home Ardern faced criticism that her government failed on a promise to be transformational.
Life is back to normal in New Zealand, but its borders are still shut, its tourism sector is bleeding and economists predict a lasting recession after the harsh lockdowns.
The economy shrank at a 12.2 percent annual clip in the second quarter, its steepest drop
since the Great Depression. Debt is forecast to rise to 56 percent of gross domestic product from less than 20 percent before the pandemic.
New Zealanders also voted on Saturday in referendums to legalise euthanasia and recreational cannabis, with results to be announced on October 30. The latter vote could make New Zealand only the third country in the world to allow the adult use and sale of cannabis nationwide, after Uruguay and Canada.