© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to supporters at a Labor Party event in Wellington
From Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to win a second term this weekend, sustained by a determined but compassionate leadership style in the crisis. Polls show their center-left Labor party is comfortably ahead.
Ardern's globally-lauded responses to the country's worst mass shootings and the coronavirus pandemic were also well received at home, despite questions being asked about Labour's references in dealing with the looming economic crisis.
While Ardern Labor was originally believed to lead to the country's first majority rule since New Zealand introduced a proportional voting system in 1996, recent polls have shown that it may have to rely on the support of the little Greens.
This would produce the country's first all-left government since 1999. The current coalition partner, the nationalist New Zealand First, led by Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, is likely to leave parliament, according to polls.
"It is hard to see an election result that Jacinda Ardern does not return as Prime Minister," said former Prime Minister Helen Clark and co-chair of a World Health Organization (WHO) panel dealing with the global coronavirus response.
"The election is in the context of the pandemic and their response to it has been rated highly," said Clark. Ardern, 40, worked as a researcher in Clark's office shortly after graduating from university.
Ardern lifted all coronavirus restrictions last week after a second series of bans and social distancing measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the country of 5 million.
She and 31,000 rugby fans saw the All Blacks battle the Australian Wallabies at a Wellington stadium this week. This made it one of the first international sporting events to be attended by spectators.
"I'm telling the world … welcome to paradise," a fan was captured calling television cameras broadcasting the game. Ardern himself is often bullied by fans with selfie sticks at public events.
Still, national leader Judith Collins has reclaimed her support for her party by focusing on the difficult financial challenge that lies ahead as unemployment rises, a recession looms and government coronavirus support packages expire. Collins has warned that a left-wing coalition would mean more taxes and an unfriendly business environment.
Ardern has long had a small but vocal group of critics at home. Early on in her tour, she was dubbed "Stardust" and "Part-time Prime Minister" by critics for appearing more on the cover of Vogue magazine than in the corridors of Parliament.
Some critics suggest that the extraordinary events that marked her first term – the pandemic, the Christchurch Mosque shootings, and the White Island volcano explosion – masked some shortcomings.
A flagship affordable housing program has been set back by embarrassing mistakes, economic growth has flattened, and your government has embarrassedly lagged behind its goals of reducing child poverty and inequality.
Thousands of indigenous Maori – traditionally an important part of Labor's support base – took to the streets last year over land and civil rights. These protests have been seen as proxy for greater disillusionment among the indigenous community about inequalities that cause Maori to lag behind on social indicators such as housing, education and health.
"The Labor-led government of Jacinda Ardern has ushered in an impressive number of Māori MPs – a record number in fact. It sounds good, but something was missing. None of them were convincing enough for Māori," said Leigh-Marama McLachlan . A communications director for her Maori tribe wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian this week.
Still, Ardern maintains a solid international following as "anti-Trump" and promotes issues such as social justice, multilateralism, environmental protection and equality in high-profile international forums, including the United Nations.
"In a world where the news cycle is heavily focused on the latest comments from the world's populist and authoritarian leaders, Jacinda Ardern is a refreshing and sharp difference," said Clark.
The challenge for Ardern will be to bring some of its international glory home while facing an unprecedented economic crisis.