SYDNEY, Australia — New Zealand’s popular prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is expected to return to power in this week’s general election, with polls giving her Labour Party a comfortable double-digit lead over the more conservative National Party.
An especially strong showing might even give Labour the country’s first majority government since an electoral overhaul in the mid-1990s that empowered minor parties and favored coalitions.
But New Zealand’s proportional voting system could also lead to some surprises, and Ms. Ardern has been vague about her plans for a potential second term.
Here’s how the campaign has played out, and what to watch for as the results come in on Saturday.
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What issues are shaping the race?
Support for Ms. Ardern has been surging for months, mainly because of her successful management of the coronavirus pandemic.
She led a comprehensive campaign for elimination of the virus centered on a “go hard, go early” approach, with borders locked down beginning in March, expanded testing and contact tracing, and a four-level alert system that made clear what was expected of everyone.
Her daily briefings with Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, became appointment viewing in part because Ms. Ardern deployed comfort and solidarity while letting science shape policy.
She also connected directly with her constituents, often turning at night to Facebook Live, where she clarified complex decisions, answered questions and empathized with what she called New Zealand’s “team of five million.”
New Zealanders, who warmed to Ms. Ardern after her response last year to the Christchurch terrorist attacks and the White Island volcano eruption, became even more loyal and proud as their prime minister came to be seen as the antithesis of President Trump and his response to the pandemic.
New Zealand first announced the end of community transmission of the virus in May. After a new cluster emerged in August, the country returned to a targeted lockdown in Auckland, its largest city, until the virus faded again.
In all, the country has recorded fewer than 2,000 cases and just 25 deaths.
“In this election campaign, everything that happened before the virus no longer mattered — the first two years no longer matter, and the only thing that people are voting on is the past eight months, and which party’s going to be the strongest and the safest over the next three years,” said Morgan Godfery, a political commentator who specializes in issues affecting the Indigenous Maori. “And that’s the reason why Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party are so widely popular — they’re the only answer for that.”
Were New Zealanders happy with Ardern before Covid?
It was a mixed picture. Ms. Ardern’s global popularity as a liberal standard-bearer has generally outpaced the love for her at home.
As recently as January, the election was expected to be quite close, in part because Ms. Ardern had failed to fulfill many of her 2017 campaign promises — especially those related to creating an economy focused on well-being that narrows the gap between rich and poor.
Income inequality has barely budged, along with child poverty, as housing costs have continued to rise, pricing more and more New Zealanders out of the market. And the government’s efforts to add supply have done little to alleviate the problem.
Labour pledged to increase the housing stock by 100,000 in a decade, but reduced its own target last year after only 258 affordable homes were built.
Ms. Ardern has pointed to an increase in the minimum wage as evidence of her government’s commitment, but generally, the legislation her government has passed worked around the edges of the economy. Even the pandemic has yielded what economists describe as an orthodox response focused on stimulus for infrastructure, small businesses and exports.
“Jacinda didn’t really do much in the first term,” said Oliver Hartwich, executive director of the New Zealand Initiative, a center-right think tank. “That wasn’t entirely her fault. It was just because she didn’t expect to be elected — until about six weeks before the last election, Labour was at 20 percent.
“In policy terms,” he added, “it was a complete disappointment, simply because they weren’t prepared.”
If she wins big this time, what will she try to accomplish in her second term?
It’s tough to tell. During the campaign against Judith Collins, the leader of the National Party, Ms. Ardern was disciplined — and very vague.
“It’s a very status quo kind of campaign. There are no big promises from it,” said Ben Thomas, a former National Party press secretary. “‘We kept you safe; we steered New Zealand through Covid.’ That’s the sales pitch.”
Mr. Godfery agreed. “At no point has it been clear — not in the debates where Jacinda Ardern seemed to do her best not to talk on policy — exactly what she stands for over the next three years, other than what’s already been done,” he said.
The election results may dictate the extent of her boldness. If Labour wins a majority, Ms. Ardern may actually be more cautious as she looks to hold on to traditional National Party voters who have cast ballots for Labour.
“Theoretically, she is unshackled now. She could do whatever she wanted to,” Mr. Hartwich said. “But I don’t think she would, because she’ll probably be thinking about the next election. The more successful she becomes, the more centrist she is likely to be.”
If Ms. Ardern and Labour have to form a coalition government with the Greens, however, she may be pushed to the left, and pushed to move more quickly.
Climate change would probably become a bigger priority, along with efforts to disrupt the cycle of intergenerational poverty and intergenerational wealth — issues that can be found elsewhere, but that are especially pressing in New Zealand, where there is no capital gains tax, and poverty has become entrenched in some parts of the country. Granting more local autonomy for Maori communities could also be in the cards.
“Working with the Greens will give her the opportunity to expand her repertoire of how to enact policy that looks after people,” said Jennifer Curtin, director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland. “She actually may have more room to enact the things she’s aspired to with the kind of language she’s used.”
What else do I need to know?
New Zealanders will also decide two ballot initiatives. The first involves voluntary euthanasia. The End of Life Choice Act would give New Zealanders the option of legally requesting help to end their lives, if they meet certain criteria, which includes suffering from a terminal illness that is likely to cause their deaths within six months.
If it passes, as expected, New Zealand would become the sixth country to approve assisted dying, along with several states in the United States and Australia.
The second referendum, if approved, would legalize recreational use of marijuana.
During the campaign, Ms. Ardern acknowledged her own marijuana use (“a long time ago,” she said), placing her squarely in the national mainstream.
Roughly 80 percent of New Zealanders have tried marijuana, according to independent studies — more than double the rate for Australians, and far above what Americans report, too. But polls suggest that the initiative, which requires voters to approve specific regulations for the creation of a legal market rather than just a general principle of legalization, is likely to fail. Only Greens voters support the marijuana proposal by a wide margin in polls.
Natasha Frost contributed reporting from Rotorua, New Zealand. Yan Zhuang contributed research from Melbourne, Australia.