Ardern Legacy Hangs Over New Zealand Vote as Rivals Fall Flat

Three years after an unprecedented wave of support saw Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party re-elected in a landslide, her party is on the brink of losing power.

(Bloomberg) — Three years after an unprecedented wave of support saw Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party re-elected in a landslide, her party is on the brink of losing power. 

New Zealanders head to the polls on Oct. 14 to choose between her replacement as prime minister, center-left Labour leader Chris Hipkins, or the center-right opposition leader, former Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon. 

There’s a lot at stake: the nation’s five million people are struggling after a year of rapid interest-rate increases while cost-of-living pressures have sparked reports of a rise in crime. About 63% of New Zealanders think their country is on the wrong track, according to a September poll by Freshwater Strategy.

Hipkins has promised to remove the goods and services tax on fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables to ease pressure on household budgets and provide free dental care for people aged under 30. Luxon’s National Party is promising to tackle crime and deliver tax cuts funded by a levy on foreigners buying property.

Yet campaigning from both sides has struggled to spur anything like the energy of the “Jacinda-mania” elections of 2017 and 2020. Polls show neither Hipkins or Luxon have cut through with voters like Ardern did, leaving almost a third undecided.

Retiree David Gillespie says the mood is far more subdued than back in 2017, when Ardern first won power. 

“People were cheering her in the streets,” Gillespie said on a recent afternoon in the center of Wellington. “Amazing excitement, you could feel it, nationwide. She just had something.”

With a population slightly larger than the US state of Alabama, New Zealand has rarely registered in international politics. But during Ardern’s five years as prime minister, the young leader regularly made headlines around the world. 

Ardern was one of the first world leaders to govern a country while pregnant, taking maternity leave to give birth to her daughter Neve. She was featured on the front pages of Time and Vogue magazines, which referred to her as the “anti-Trump.” Her resignation at the start of the year made global news — CNN wrote that Ardern “like George Washington, knew when to quit.”

“Other countries and other media from overseas were really looking for Ardern as this bastion of hope for left-wing politics, or this kind of quite cool young woman leader,” said Lara Greaves, a political scientist at Victoria University of Wellington. “But here, people were getting sick of her.”

Before her resignation in January 2023, her party was consistently polling below the National opposition, with a drop in support of more than 20 percentage points from its peak. 

Even Ardern’s successor Hipkins appears to be distancing himself from his former leader. When asked in the first election debate in September which of his predecessors he respected the most, Hipkins mentioned Ardern but also former Labour prime minister Helen Clark, saying he respected “many leaders.”

Retail worker Donna Forsman said without Ardern, she was struggling to get excited about the upcoming election, or either candidate. “It’s very difficult to choose,” she said, adding she was likely to vote for Labour again.

Campaign Trail

At a shopping center in northwest Auckland on Sept. 26, Luxon was greeted warmly if not overly enthusiastically by voters. One mother explained to her son that Luxon is “hopefully our next prime minister,” while 18-year-old trainee paramedic Kaitlyn Hunt said after meeting him in person she was impressed.

Hunt said she was considering casting her first vote ever for Luxon’s National Party, saying crime was “out of control.” 

But some voters said that while Labour might still have lost government if Ardern had remained, she likely would have been more persuasive in arguing for another term than Hipkins. Some even said Ardern’s resignation had changed their vote.

Uber driver Ramadeep Singh said he was leaning toward voting for the National Party due to his concerns over rising crime.

Singh said two businesses owned by his friends and family had been robbed in the past year, one in a ram raid. But as he spoke about his six years living in New Zealand, Singh said he owed a lot to the former prime minister.

“I had a great loyalty to Jacinda,” he said. “If she was still prime minister I would have voted for Labour.”

–With assistance from Matthew Brockett, Ainsley Thomson and Tracy Withers.

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