WELLINGTON -- New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rose to power on a wave of "Jacinda-mania" three years ago, and polls indicate her government's successful COVID-19 strategy will ensure her center-left Labour Party remains in control following elections on Saturday.
Ardern's appeal was dismissed as "stardust" by a rival in 2017, but in 2020 she can point to her government's achievements in eliminating the coronavirus, as well as her reputation for strong communication skills and empathy. The 40-year-old, who became a mother less than a year into her prime ministership, also won acclaim at home and abroad for her compassionate response after a lone terrorist shot dead 51 Muslim worshippers in the southern city of Christchurch in March last year.
Political science professor Jennifer Curtin of the University of Auckland said Ardern is able to connect with voters in the nation of 5 million in a unique way. "She has that very easy appeal and people can imagine she could be their neighbor, she's not perceived as part of the elite," Curtin said.
Ardern's public appearances during the campaign have seen her mobbed, especially by younger voters seeking selfies, amid calls of "we love you, Jacinda." It is a hard act for rival National Party leader Judith Collins to follow, especially as she is the party's third leader since May following internal upheaval caused by poor poll results.
A TV1-Colmar Brunton poll on Thursday, which was little changed from other recent surveys, showed Labour leading on 46% support, with the center-right National Party trailing on 31%.
The question this election is whether Labour will perform well enough to form a government on its own. Under New Zealand's proportional representation system, established in 1996, no major party has ever won a majority of places in the 120-seat parliament.
Labour is more likely to form a coalition or looser support agreement with left-wing allies, the Green Party, which had 8% support in the poll.
The National Party's right-wing ally, the ACT Party, also had 8% support. Together, the right wing parties trailed Labour and the Greens by 15 percentage points.
Labour had been behind National in polls before COVID-19 reached New Zealand, and the government had made little progress on some key policy platforms such as housing, child poverty and climate change. Ardern has leapt on the chance to focus on what she has dubbed the "COVID election."
"While there was no playbook for COVID-19, we went hard and early and committed to a strategy of elimination which has meant that when we've had new cases, we've circled and stamped them out and opened up our economy faster than others," she told a cheering Labour Party rally last Sunday.
New Zealand has recorded a little over 1,500 confirmed COVID-19 infections and 25 deaths since its first case in late February. The initial outbreak was eliminated in the country by late May, thanks to some of the world's strictest lockdown measures. A small outbreak in Auckland led to lockdown restrictions being reimposed in the country's largest city in August, with looser rules elsewhere.
The Auckland outbreak delayed the election, originally scheduled for Sept. 19, but there have been no cases of coronavirus transmission in the community since late September.
The pandemic and its economic fallout have blocked out many of the more typical campaign issues. A Horizon Research poll showed health, the COVID-19 economic recovery and management of the pandemic were the top three issues in voters' minds.
Political scientist Curtin said Judith Collins' much more assertive personality presented voters with a stark choice in leadership style. Collins, 60, has been in parliament for two decades and was nicknamed "Crusher" during her time as police minister in the previous National-led government.
The National Party leader has attempted to win back support from Labour by promising income tax cuts and claiming her party has the best economic management credentials to steer New Zealand through the crisis.
"The most important issue for this election is economic recovery for New Zealand," Collins said in a recent TV debate with Ardern, adding tax cuts would be an "adrenaline pump into the heart of the economy."
New Zealand's quarter-on-quarter GDP shrank by 12.2% in the second quarter, more than the OECD average, although a large part of the period was under the tight lockdown restrictions. Most of these were lifted in the third quarter, when the domestic economy is expected to have bounced back strongly by between 8.5% and 13.5% on the quarter, according to major bank economists. But the border remains closed to almost all overseas arrivals and the largest foreign exchange earner, tourism, continues to suffer.
ASB Bank senior economist Mark Smith said markets had traditionally supported the market-friendly policies of the center-right parties, but he added that the main parties' economic policies were broadly similar and there were fewer concerns about the Labour-led government's fiscal management. "As such, we expect currency and interest rate reaction from a Labour-led victory to be modest," he said.
He echoed the wishes of many in the business community by adding that whoever wins the election would need to provide a coherent vision for shifting the economy out of the crisis, establish a platform for sustained growth and address longer-term challenges.
Despite the global scope of COVID-19, there has been virtually no debate about the foreign affairs and trade implications of the pandemic.
Little has separated the two main political parties in foreign affairs policy in recent decades. Both tread a careful line in the growing tensions between China, New Zealand's top trading partner, and the U.S., with which New Zealand has close defense and security links.
Beijing criticized New Zealand after Ardern's government suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong this year in response to the territory's new security law, and last year after Wellington stopped Chinese tech giant Huawei from taking part in its new 5G communications network.
So far, however, New Zealand has avoided the level of tensions that have troubled China's relationship with Australia and other Western countries.