With most votes counted, Ardern’s center-left Labour Party is projected to take 49 percent of the vote, which would mean 64 of 120 parliamentary seats and a firm majority.
But that also would leave her carrying all the burden to revive New Zealand’s battered economy, hit by some of the world’s toughest pandemic lockdown rules and travel bans that gutted the critical tourism industry.
A beaming Ardern, 40, opened her victory speech at the Auckland Town Hall with a greeting in Te Reo Maori, the Indigenous language of New Zealand.
“Tonight New Zealand has shown the Labour Party its greatest support in at least 50 years,” she continued. “We will not take your support for granted and I promise you we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander.”
In contrast to today’s “polarizing world,” Ardern pledged to “govern as we campaigned: positively, with an optimism about our future.”
Ardern was expected to win going into the election. But the main unknown was by how much.
Labour’s main opposition party, the center-right National Party, is projected to have won around 27 percent, or 35 seats, down from 44 percent in the last election, in 2017.
At the start of the year, before the pandemic, polls showed the Labour and National parties in a tight race.
That was despite Ardern’s growing international fame and her handling of the Christchurch mosque massacres, which claimed 51 lives and stunned a nation with low rates of gun crime. Ardern was applauded for her outreach to New Zealand’s Muslim community and pushed for quick legislation to ban most assault-style firearms.
Ardern’s electoral prospects began to change, however, in the months since the coronavirus overran the world.
Ardern enacted a lockdown when the isolated country of 5 million had just more than 100 coronavirus cases. In the months since, New Zealand has officially reported less than 2,000 cases and 25 covid-19 related deaths, among the world’s lowest counts.
These policies have not been without painful repercussions.
New Zealand is facing its worst recession in decades, in large part due to the government’s strict response. The shutdowns, mixed with preexisting immigration policies, have also left migrant workers stranded outside the country and divided mixed-national families, although repatriation arrangements have been prepared by authorities.
Still, Ardern’s rivals in the National Party seem to have failed to convince a majority of voters that their more conservative economic policies would be preferable.
Ardern also faces a second term in which rising tensions with China loom large, including Ardern’s claims of Beijing interference in New Zealand’s affairs.
New Zealand backed Taiwan’s bid for a role in the World Health Organization in May and supported calls for a probe into the cause of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which was first detected in Wuhan, China.
In a July speech to the Chinese business community, Ardern stressed her government’s “principles-based approach to our foreign policy” toward issues including Hong Kong and rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Later that month, New Zealand suspended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong following the imposition of a Beijing-backed national security law that sharply limits political dissent.
Ardern has repeatedly indicated that New Zealand is looking to diversify trade relationships away from China. But New Zealand’s tourism, agriculture and education sectors remain heavily dependent on China.
‘Be kind’ motto
When she was elected in 2017, Ardern, then 37, was the country’s youngest living leader. She gave birth a year later, becoming only the second world leader to do so while in office. She has since been celebrated as a role model for working mothers.
Ardern’s brand of compassionate politics — “be kind,” became her catchphrase during the pandemic — has been championed in sharp contrast to the polarizing approach of President Trump, with whom she has occasionally butted heads.
She also has been a strong advocate for international cooperation around issues such as climate change, with supporters dubbing her “the anti-Trump” as a result.
Final results, and the subsequent allocation of parliamentary seats, will not be released for three weeks to allow time for special ballots, such as New Zealanders living overseas, to be counted.
Likewise, the results of referendum questions on legalizing the recreational use of Cannabis and “assisted dying” on the ballot will not be published for two weeks.
This year, about 1.9 million people, or about half of eligible voters, cast their ballots in early voting that began Oct. 3.
New Zealand adopted its proportional voting structure in 1996. Coalition governments there are the norm and no single party has won a majority of votes in 24 years.
Berger reported from Washington.