Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was headed for a landslide win and a second term in office Saturday in New Zealand’s general election.
With more than half the votes counted, Ardern’s liberal Labour Party had nearly double the support of its main challenger, the conservative National Party.
“It’s a landslide that looks like our vote is the best it has been since the 1940s,” said Labour Minister David Parker. “It’s a tremendous accolade first and foremost to the prime minister, but also to the wider Labour team and the Labour movement.”
A record number of voters cast early ballots in the two weeks leading up to the election.
Labour was on the cusp of winning an outright majority in Parliament, something that hasn’t happened since New Zealand implemented a proportional voting system 24 years ago. Typically, parties must form alliances to govern, but this time Ardern and Labour may be able to go it alone.
On the campaign trail, Ardern was greeted like a rock star by people who crammed into malls and spilled onto streets to cheer her on and get selfies with her.
Her popularity soared earlier this year after she led a successful effort to stamp out the coronavirus. There is currently no community spread of the virus in the nation of 5 million and people are no longer required to wear masks or social distance.
Ardern, 40, won the top job after the 2017 election when Labour formed an alliance with two other parties. The following year, she became only the second world leader to give birth while in office.
She became a role model for working mothers around the world, many of whom saw her as a counterpoint to President Donald Trump. And she was praised for her handling of last year’s attack on two Christchurch mosques, when a white supremacist gunned down 51 Muslim worshippers.
She moved quickly to pass new laws banning the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons.
In late March this year, when only about 100 people had tested positive for COVID-19, Ardern and her health officials put New Zealand into a strict lockdown with a motto of “Go hard and go early.” She shut the borders and outlined an ambitious goal of eliminating the virus entirely rather than just trying to control its spread.
With New Zealand having the advantage of being an isolated island nation, the strategy worked. The country eliminated community transmission for 102 days before a new cluster was discovered in August in Auckland.
Ardern swiftly imposed a second lockdown in Auckland and the new outbreak faded away. The only new cases found recently have been among returning travelers, who are in quarantine.
The Auckland outbreak also prompted Ardern to postpone the election by a month and helped increase the early voter turnout.
The National Party’s leader, Judith Collins, is a former lawyer. She served as a minister when National was in power and prides herself on a blunt, no-nonsense approach, a contrast to Ardern’s empathetic style. Collins, 61, was promising sweeping tax cuts in response to the economic downturn caused by the virus.
In the election, voters also had a say on two contentious social issues — whether to legalize marijuana and euthanasia. Polls taken before the election indicated the euthanasia referendum was likely to pass while the marijuana vote remained uncertain. The results of both referendums will be announced Oct. 30.