WELLINGTON: New Zealanders went to the polls on Saturday (Oct 17) in a general election that could see Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern strengthen her left-of-centre hold on government or a challenge from conservatives led by Judith Collins.
Labour Party leader Ardern, 40, and National Party chief Collins, 61, are the faces of the election to form the country's 53rd parliament, a pandemic-focused referendum on Ardern's three-year term.
Labour led by wide margins in opinion polls before the vote.
Ardern initially appeared to be on track to be able form a Labour-only government, the first outright majority government since New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system in 1996. But more recent polls have indicated she may need the continued support of the minor Green Party.
Voting has ended, and the Electoral Commission is expected to begin releasing preliminary results shortly. A record number of voters had cast their ballots in advance.
Ardern brought homemade cheese scones to campaign volunteers Saturday morning in Auckland and appeared relaxed as she awaited results.
On the campaign trail, Ardern has been greeted like a rock star by people who have crammed into malls and spilled onto streets to cheer her on and get selfies with her.
Her popularity soared earlier this year after Ardern - who has dubbed the vote "the COVID election" - led a successful effort to stamp out the coronavirus.
There is currently no community spread of the virus in the nation of 5 million and people are no longer required to wear masks or social distance.
"Who's better placed to keep New Zealand safe and who's better placed to get us on track to recovery?" she asked repeatedly on the campaign trail.
Another theme has been "sticking together in uncertain times", highlighting the charismatic 40-year-old's leadership qualities, not just during the pandemic but in a series of crises during her three years in office.
These include the Christchurch mosques shootings in March last year, when a white supremacist gunman killed 51 Muslim worshippers, and the White Island (also known as Whakaari) volcanic eruption last December in which 21 people died.
"No matter what crisis is thrown my way, you will always be assured I will give my everything to this job, even if that means a huge sacrifice," she said this week.
COALITION AND COMPROMISE
Collins, the combative leader of the centre-right National Party, has focused on the spectre of the Greens forcing Ardern to adopt a wealth tax aimed squarely at New Zealand's aspirational middle class.
Collins sparked a rare flash of anger from Ardern with the claims in a televised debate this week.
"I have been absolutely clear on this multiple times - it is a desperate tactic and frankly sad," said Ardern of the wealth tax claim, also calling Collins a liar.
The conservative leader, known as "Crusher" for her hardline policies when police minister in a previous government, was undeterred, saying National was best placed to steer New Zealand through a COVID-19 induced recession.
"I bring real business experience at a time of grave economic situation that we're moving into now, and the ability to make decisions," she said.
COVID-19 ELECTION DELAY
The vote was originally set for Sep 19 but was delayed by a virus outbreak in Auckland that has now been contained.
Collins, who took over National in July after a period of turmoil when the party had three leaders in three months, said the false start had cost her campaign momentum.
The Electoral Commission said on Saturday that almost 2 million ballots had already been cast as of Friday, accounting for more than half of the roughly 3.5 million New Zealanders on the electoral rolls.
Special votes, including ballots from New Zealanders overseas and those who vote outside their home constituencies, will only be released on Nov 6.
New Zealand has strict election day laws that do not allow exit polls during voting, which began at 9am (4am, Singapore time) and ended at 7pm (2pm, Singapore time).
Under the country's rules, media outlets are extremely limited on what they can report during the day, with election adverts similarly restricted, to prevent voters being swayed.
However, a firm indication of the outcome is expected within about three hours after polling booths close.
Voters also cast ballots in two referendums, one on legalising recreational cannabis and the other on legalising euthanasia, although the results of those votes will not be known until Oct 30.