New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern is on track to win a second term

In the final days of campaigning before New Zealand holds an election on Saturday, PМ Jacinda Ardern, 40, is being greeted like a rock star, AP reported.

Hundreds of students are crammed into a common area at the Victoria University of Wellington to hear her speak, and her message of hope is being punctuated by thunderous applause. One student volunteer looks on the verge of tears while others are shrieking or singing. It’s an unusually emotive display in a country where people often pride themselves on keeping things low key.

And yet as Ardern talks in uplifting tones about her plans to address mental health and climate change, she never mentions what many around the world consider her greatest success: leading the effort to stamp out the coronavirus from the nation’s shores. Nobody in the crowd is social distancing or wearing a mask — they don’t need to because the virus is no longer spreading in New Zealand.

Opinion polls indicate Ardern is on track to win a second term as prime minister. Her liberal Labour Party is polling far ahead of the conservative National Party, led by Judith Collins. One question on election night will be whether Labour can win 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 there’s a chance Ardern and Labour will be able to go it alone.

After becoming prime minister at just 37, Ardern in 2018 became only the second world leader to give birth while in office. She famously brought her infant daughter Neve to the UN General Assembly in New York.

She was praised for her handling of last year’s attack on two Christchurch mosques, when a white supremacist gunned down 51 Muslim worshippers. The day after the attack, Ardern wore a hijab when meeting with survivors and later delivered a landmark speech when she declared “They are us.” She also moved quickly to pass new laws banning the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons, and her government launched a programme to buy back and destroy more than 50,000 guns.

In late March, 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. New Zealand eliminated community transmission for 102 days before a new cluster was discovered in August in the city of Auckland. Ardern swiftly imposed a second lockdown in Auckland and the new outbreak faded away.

The Auckland outbreak prompted Ardern to postpone the election by a month. It also appears to have encouraged more people to vote early and avoid the crowds. On Saturday, voters will also have a say on two contentious social issues — whether to legalize marijuana and euthanasia. Polls indicate the euthanasia referendum is likely to pass while the marijuana vote remains close.

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