Ardern's party seizes big lead in New Zealand election initial returns

Pre-election opinion polls put support for Ardern's centre-left Labour Party at 46 percent

Pre-election opinion polls put support for Ardern's centre-left Labour Party at 46 percent

Ardern said she would govern for all New Zealanders and declined to say whether she would invite the Green Party into her government until final results were in.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) and National leader Judith Collins participate in a televised debate at TVNZ in Auckland, New Zealand, September 22, 2020.

Ms Ardern's centre-left Labour Party was on track to win nearly 50 cent per cent of the vote as results rolled in on Saturday, while the opposition National party, led by Judith Collins, languished under 30 per cent. The opposition conservative National Party scored 27 percent of votes and is down to 35 seats from the 54 it secured in the previous general election.

With 94% of ballots counted, Labour had won enough of the vote to allow it to govern without requiring the support of any minor parties - a first since the country adopted its current proportional representation election system in 1996. But more recent polls have indicated she may need the continued support of the minor Greens.

Labour entered the evening with a 15-point lead in the polls, and quickly outperformed expectations as early results trickled in.

The libertarian ACT New Zealand has gained popularity and is set to win 10 seats, a major increase from the one it now has.

"There's no doubt the strong, great leadership we've had from Jacinda Ardern has been a massive factor in all this", she told NZ.

In late March this year, when only about 100 people had tested positive for COVID-19, Ardern and her health officials put New Zealand into a strict lockdown with a motto of "Go hard and go early".

Ardern has dubbed the vote "the Covid election" and campaigned on her government's success in eliminating community transmission of the virus, which has caused just 25 deaths in a population of five million.

A year ago she won praise for her handling of the worst terrorist attack in New Zealand's history, the Christchurch mosques shooting.

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Ardern again found herself comforting a shocked nation when a volcanic eruption at White Island, also known as Whakaari, killed 21 people and left dozens more with horrific burns.

"For that I have two words - thank you".

Ardern faced criticism during her first term for failing to deliver on some key promises such as improving housing affordability and countering child poverty.

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

The election also saw Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and his small New Zealand First party voted out.

Ardern, 40, has captured the hallowed center ground in New Zealand politics with a blend of empathetic leadership and skilled crisis management that has also won her fame overseas. Ardern has ruled out implementing the wealth tax proposed by the Greens.

"This has not been an ordinary election, and it's not an ordinary time", she said.

Voters are rewarding Ardern for crushing community transmission of Covid-19 while countries like the United Kingdom, US and even neighboring Australia are still battling to contain the virus.

Collins, who took over the National Party 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.

New Zealanders also voted on Saturday in referendums to legalise euthanasia and recreational marijuana, with results to be announced on October 30.

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