New Zealand Votes in Cliffhanger Election With Kingmaker in Play

  • Polls show Labour could form government with Greens, NZ First
  • Ruling National Party would also need Winston to get 4th term

New Zealanders vote in an election Saturday that could go either way, even as Prime Minister Bill English leads in opinion polls.

While final surveys show English’s National Party had 45 percent support to 37 percent for the main opposition Labour Party, he could still be ousted by a coalition grouping including minor players. The polls show the nationalist New Zealand First Party may hold the balance of power, and its leader Winston Peters refuses to say which way he will go.

Bill English

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Voters have been on a roller-coaster ride since Labour elevated 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern to leader just seven weeks out from the election. The euphoria that followed saw the two major parties suddenly neck-and-neck in polls, before Labour’s backing began to fade in the final days under relentless attack from National over its economic credentials and a lack of clarity on tax policy.

“It does seem now that Jacinda-Mania peaked a week early,” said political analyst Bryce Edwards. “If the election had been held last week, we would be looking at a Labour-led government. But the shine has come off and she has looked more vulnerable. It is going to be finely balanced on Saturday night.”

Polls close at 7 p.m. local time Saturday, after which results will start rolling in. The Electoral Commission expects to have 100 percent of voting booths counted by 11:30 p.m. If there is no clear winner, talks to form a new government could take weeks.

‘Theirs to Lose’

New Zealand’s German-style electoral system lends itself to coalitions, and both National and Labour are likely to need the support of minor parties to reach a majority. Labour can rely on its ally the Greens, which had 7 percent support in an average of polls compiled by Radio New Zealand. But it would also need Peters, whose party was also on 7 percent.

Winston Peters

Photographer: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

“So I would say National will be feeling quietly happy,” said Jennifer Curtin, associate professor of politics at Auckland University. “I think it’s still theirs to lose.”

However, on current polling English would also need to court 72-year-old Peters, a notoriously difficult bedfellow who can be expected to seek ministerial positions and policy concessions in return for his support. His talks with both sides could stretch into October before a decision is reached.

In return for backing a National government in 1996, Peters was appointed deputy prime minister and treasurer. When he supported Labour in 2005, he was rewarded with the foreign affairs portfolio.

That Labour has any chance of forming a government is down to Ardern. When she took the reins on Aug. 1, the party was languishing at 24 percent support and National appeared to be sleepwalking to a rare fourth consecutive term.

Jacinda-Mania

Ardern sparked the campaign into life, articulating her vision for a more equitable society and arguing that too many people have been left behind during nine years of conservative government. She went after the youth vote with policies on the environment, education and climate change, and her emergence drew comparisons with the generational shift in leadership seen in countries like Canada and France.

Jacinda Ardern

Photographer: Mark Coote/Bloomberg

English, who only became prime minister late last year after the unexpected departure of John Key, responded by shaking off his image as a boring former finance minister and showing more passion for the fight.

Presenting National as a safe pair of hands on the economy, he hammered Ardern for a lack of policy detail and forced her to delay a plan to introduce a capital gains tax aimed at damping speculation in the residential property market.

Fending off attacks on the government’s handling of poverty, housing supply and the environment, English was able to cast doubt on Labour’s fiscal management and highlight its plan to repeal his tax cuts. It proved enough to get his nose in front in the final week of the campaign.

“National have miraculously managed to convince enough voters that they’re doing enough on social issues, and in the end it might be enough to get them re-elected,” said Edwards. “English has performed better than most commentators would have expected. He’s had a strong campaign.”

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