New Zealand's Ardern wins 'historic' re-election for crushing Covid-19

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered the biggest election victory for her centre-left Labour Party in half a century on Saturday as voters rewarded her for a decisive response to Covid-19.

The mandate means Ardern, 40, could form the first single-party government in decades and will face the challenge of delivering on the progressive transformation she promised but failed to deliver in her first term, where Labour shared power with a nationalist party.

"This is a historic shift," said political commentator Bryce Edwards of Victoria University in Wellington, describing the vote as one of the biggest swings in New Zealand's electoral history in 80 years.

Labour was on track to win 64 of the 120 seats in the country's unicameral parliament, the highest by any party since New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system in 1996.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 19: Queen Elizabeth II greets Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand in the Blue Drawing Room at The Queen's Dinner during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Buckingham Palace on April 19, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Victoria Jones - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
New Zealand's Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford are greeted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth during a private audience at Buckingham Palace, London April 19, 2018. Dominic Lipinski/Pool via Reuters
Britain's Prince William arrives with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the RNZAF Air Movements Terminal on April 25, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. Hannah Peters/Pool via REUTERS *** Local Caption *** CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 25: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge arrives with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the RNZAF Air Movements Terminal on April 25, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. Prince William is on a two-day visit to New Z
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern greets Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Patricia Scotland, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, ahead of a working session at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, meet New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Government House in Wellington, New Zealand, October 28, 2018. Kirsty Wigglesworth/Pool via REUTERS
Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex at a reception at the Auckland War Memorial Museum where they were greeted by the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern in Auckland, New Zealand October 30, 2018. Ian Vogler/Pool via Reuters
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern kisses her baby Neve after speaking at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 24, 2018. Picture taken September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Prince Charles and his wife Camilla the Duchess of Cornwall sit next to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (R) during a visit to Cashmere High School in Cashmere, New Zealand November 22, 2019. REUTERS/Tracey Nearmy/Pool
Britain's Prince Charles meets with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Government House in Auckland, New Zealand, November 19, 2019. Patrice Allen/Pool via REUTERS
New Zealand Labour leader Jacinda Ardern smiles as she speaks to the press after leader of New Zealand First party Winston Peters announced his support for her party in Wellington, New Zealand, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Charlotte Greenfield
Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull greets New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern before their meeting in Sydney, Australia, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray
Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang welcomes New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the APEC Business Advisory Council dialogue during the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May laughs during a meeting with New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and military personnel in Downing Street in London, Britain January 21, 2019. Kirsty Wigglesworth/Pool via REUTERS
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern waves to student dancers (not pictured) upon her arrival to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related meetings in Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related meetings in Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern inspects soldiers during an official welcoming ceremony at Admiralty House in Sydney, Australia, March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Dean Lewins/Pool
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) greets New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) upon her arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Clarke Gayford, the partner of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, holds their baby Neve as Ardern addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern carries her newborn baby Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford with partner Clarke Gayford as she walks out of the Auckland Hospital in New Zealand, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ross Land
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walk through the grounds of Windsor Castle in Windsor, Britain, April 20, 2018. Andrew Matthews/Pool via Reuters
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern takes a drink as she delivers a speech at The Queen's Dinner during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Buckingham Palace in London, Britain, April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrive for a a press conference after a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern leave after a news conference at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is welcomed by European Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels, Belgium January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attends the national remembrance service for victims of the mosque attacks, at Hagley Park in Christchurch, New Zealand March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern leaves after the Friday prayers at Hagley Park outside Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with one of the first responders who was at the scene of the Christchurch mosque shooting, in Christchurch, New Zealand March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holds her baby Neve after speaking at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York City, New York, U.S., September 24, 2018. Picture taken September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hold a news conference in Brussels, Belgium January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern greets Imam Gamal Fouda during her visit to Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand March 26, 2019. Joseph Johnson/Pool via REUTERS
Chinese President Xi Jinping and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shake hands before the meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China April 1, 2019. Kenzaburo Fukuhara/KYODONEWS/Pool via REUTERS
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bangkok, Thailand, November 4, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (R) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) arrive for a joint press conference on September 19, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool via REUTERS *** Local Caption *** TOKYO, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 19: New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (R) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) arrive for a joint press conference on September 19, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern leave after the launch of the 'Christchurch Appeal' against terrorism at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern leaves after the Friday prayers at Hagley Park outside Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reacts during a media standup in the aftermath of the eruption of White Island volcano, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, at Whakatane, New Zealand December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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Ardern, 40, promised supporters she would build an economy that works for everyone, create jobs, train people, protect the environment and address climate challenges and social inequalities.

"We are living in an increasingly polarised world," she said. "A place where more and more have lost the ability to see one another's point of view. I hope that with this election, New Zealand has shown that this is not who we are."

Opposition National Party leader Judith Collins said she congratulated the prime minister for an "outstanding result".

Labour had 49.0% of the votes, far ahead of National at 27%, the Electoral Commission said, with 95% of ballots counted.

Ardern said she would wait until the final result to say if her government would include smaller groups like the Green Party, a former coalition partner that secured a bigger 8% mandate.

VOTERS SWING

National leaders were decimated in their strongholds by young Labour candidates who appealed to voters with progressive, democratic messages, and highlighted the party's success in beating coronavirus.

"The last seven months of this government, all of the issues around their past promises have been put aside because of Covid-19. It's that simple," said Deputy National leader Gerry Brownlee who lost his long-held seat.

Despite the election's tilt to the left, Ardern "is likely to continue to chart a centrist course, largely aiming to implement incremental change that she hopes will outlast a future change in government," because she owes her victory to centre-right voters who previously supported National, said Geoffrey Miller, analyst at political website Democracy Project.

'BE STRONG, BE KIND'

The prime minister won global acclaim for her handling of a mass shooting last year by a white supremacist in Christchurch, with her inclusive "be strong, be kind" mantra and swift action to ban guns.

She burnished that reputation this year with a "go hard, go early" approach to the new coronavirus, which has eliminated locally spread Covid-19 in the nation.

The election was delayed by a month after new Covid-19 infections in Auckland that led to a second lockdown in the country's largest city.

While known internationally for promoting progressive causes such as woman's rights and social justice, at home Ardern faced criticism that her government failed on a promise to be transformational.

Life is back to normal in New Zealand, but its borders are still shut, its tourism sector is bleeding and economists predict a lasting recession after the harsh lockdowns.

The economy shrank at an 12.2% annual clip in the second quarter, its steepest drop since the Great Depression. Debt is forecast to rise to 56% of gross domestic product from less than 20% before the pandemic.

New Zealanders also voted on Saturday in referendums to legalise euthanasia and recreational marijuana, with results to be announced on Oct. 30. The latter vote could make New Zealand only the third country in the world to allow the adult use and sale of cannabis nationwide, after Uruguay and Canada.

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