New Zealanders will go to the polls on Sept. 19 to decide whether Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will serve a second term, and to vote in referendums on the divisive issues of legalizing marijuana and euthanasia.
While Ardern is popular among progressive voters overseas for her response to a mass shooting, focus on climate change action, multilateralism, and ability to combine her career and motherhood, her popularity at home has been affected by slowing economic growth and low business confidence, a failed state housing project, and scandals within her coalition government.
“I will be asking New Zealanders to continue to support my leadership and the current direction of the government, which is grounded in stability, a strong economy, and progress on the long-term challenges facing New Zealand,” Ardern told a news conference.
Political pundits are predicting a close contest, with scheduled referendums on whether to legalize marijuana and euthanasia expected to be distracting and divisive.
“I am not making predictions on this as it’s going to be a tight race,” said Grant Duncan, associate professor at Massey University in Auckland.
New Zealand’s Treasury in December trimmed its 2020 economic growth forecast and flagged a budget deficit as international headwinds including Brexit and the U.S.-China trade war bite. The government in December announced a NZ$12 billion ($7.7 billion) infrastructure budget to try to counter those factors.
In an interview with Reuters in December, Ardern noted there was work to be done but her party was still polling higher than it had before the 2017 election.
Ardern, 39, took the helm of the country as the world’s youngest female leader in 2017, a remarkable rise that dominated global headlines and generated the phrase “Jacinda-mania.”
She campaigned passionately to end child poverty and economic inequality, upstaging the ruling center-right National Party and forming a government with the small, nationalist New Zealand First Party and the Green Party under the country’s proportional voting system.
Ardern’s response to the massacre at two mosques in Christchurch in March was to rapidly push a ban on semi-automatic weapons through Parliament.
She became only the second head of state after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto to give birth while in office, attending the United Nations with her baby and partner in tow.
But critics have accused her of bringing little change locally.
“New Zealanders have seen that Labor and Jacinda Ardern can’t deliver,” National Party leader Simon Bridges said in a statement. “While there’s a lot of announcements, leadership means actually getting things done.”
Ardern said last week her party would wage a “relentlessly positive” 2020 election campaign while announcing her party had signed up to Facebook’s advertising transparency tool to fight misinformation.
“We will be asking for a further term to get the job done,” Ardern told the news conference.
Duncan added there were concerns there were too many things going.
“The big issue is how people feel about the government’s performance … its performance in relation to housing and child poverty, and there will be a debate about climate change,” he said.
The Parliament will be officially dissolved on Aug. 12, and until then, the government will function as usual, Ardern said.
By Praveen Menon