Jacinda Ardern to govern New Zealand for second term after historic victory

By Eleanor Ainge Roy and Charlotte Graham-McLay in Auckland

Jacinda Ardern will govern New Zealand for a second term after the Labour party secured a historic landslide victory in the general election, attracting so many votes it could become the first party in decades to be able to govern alone.

Ardern’s deft handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and resolute belief in science and experts was credited with earning the trust of New Zealanders, who cast early votes in record numbers, giving her party more votes than at any other election in the past five decades.

With nearly 100% 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, being hailed as “extraordinary” by the former Labour prime minister Helen Clark, and “mind-blowing” by supporters.

The leader of the opposition, Judith Collins, congratulated Ardern on the “outstanding result” on Saturday night, but refused to answer questions from reporters on whether she would stay on as leader.

Speaking to a 1,000 people at Auckland town hall, Ardern thanked the nation for the strong mandate. She said elections “don’t have to be divisive” and promised to govern with cooperation and positivity, adding that New Zealand could set an example by showing elections don’t have to mean people “tear one another apart”.

She said: “We are living in an increasingly polarised world, a place where more and more people have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view. I hope in this election New Zealand has shown that this is not who we are. That as a nation we can listen, and we can debate. After all, we are too small to lose sight of other people’s perspective. Elections aren’t always great at bringing people together. But they also don’t need to tear one another apart.

“At times of crisis, I believe New Zealand has shown that. This has not been an ordinary election and it is not an ordinary time. It’s been full of uncertainty and anxiety – and we set out to be an antidote to that.”

The words were interpreted as a veiled allusion to the divisive US election, due to take place in two weeks.

New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern condemns divisive elections in victory speech – video

Ardern had tears in her eyes as she took to the podium, and appeared moved by the show of support for her party, and leadership. Earlier this week she had said she would quit politics if she was not re-elected.

The first 30 seconds of Ardern’s address was in fluent Māori – the language of New Zealand’s Indigenous people.

To cheers, Ardern said: “I cannot imagine a people I would feel more privileged to work on behalf of, to work alongside and to be prime minister for. Tonight’s result does give Labour a very strong and very clear mandate.”

If it chooses, Labour will not have to rely on a minor party to form a government.

This would make Ardern’s 2020 government the first since 1996 to govern alone, giving it a seismic advantage to pass progressive policy on issues such as climate change, affordable housing and child poverty.

In her first term as leader, Ardern struggled to enact the transformational change she had promised voters. It is understood she was stymied by her necessary coalition agreement with NZ First – a right-leaning, socially conservative minor party.

They have now been decisively voted out of government, failing to meet the 5% threshold.

Ardern has yet to decide if she will invite the Green party into government; but even without them, the new government will be significantly more progressive and left-leaning than its previous iteration.

The vote had become a referendum on Ardern’s leadership since 2017, when she morphed from a relative unknown backbench opposition MP to prime minister in less than three months.

The results 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.

Ardern’s decision to close the borders and enforce a nationwide lockdown meant fewer than 2,000 people became infected with coronavirus and 25 people died.

A record number of voters – nearly 2 million – cast their ballots in advance, accounting for almost half of the roughly 3.5 million New Zealanders on the electoral rolls.

Collins – the third leader this year of a National party beset by infighting and disunity _ often preferred to criticise Ardern’s handling of the pandemic or plans for economic recovery, rather than promote her own policies.

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.

Jacinda Ardern's partner serves up food for journalists – video

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, 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 popularity was at the forefront of Labour’s campaign, with one 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.

Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a politics professor from Auckland University, said: “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 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, but it was Labour’s promise to deliver “stability” – usually a National party slogan – that proved decisive 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 lockdown.

Collins crushed

While Collins, a veteran politician, was a known quantity, she was also divisive – loved and loathed in equal measure. Her upbeat energy appeared to flag in the final week of the campaign as her defeat looked ever more certain, and she will now likely face a fight for the National leadership.

National leader Judith Collins
National leader Judith Collins appeared to flag during the final week of election campaigning. Photograph: Dave Rowland/Getty

Collins criticised Ardern for using “waffly” language and failing to deliver on her promises of transformational change. She said the prime minister offered “love and hugs” when what the country really needed was an experienced politician and a business hand to lead them out of the financial crisis.

But her attacks did not seem to resonate with voters.

Political analysts have described the 2020 general election as “weird”, “odd” and “bizarre”; and said it lacked the usual drama and scandal – as well as much coherency.

Ardern’s popularity at home and abroad have transformed her into the country’s first “celebrity PM” and, coupled with her Covid-19 success, many analysts judged her impossible to beat, saying her appeal as a leader stretched beyond politics.

As well as electing a new government, the ballot papers asked New Zealanders to decide on whether to legalise marijuana and euthanasia. The results of the referendum questions will not be made public until 30 October. Polling has suggested euthanasia looked likely to become legal, but support for legalising cannabis has cooled.