Jacinda Ardern was expected to win Saturday’s parliamentary election in New Zealand given that almost all opinion polls had predicted this for the 40-year-old global liberal icon , noted for her inclusive politics and tough handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But it was the margin of the victory that surprised many. Her centre-left Labour Party won 49.1% of the popular vote and is projected to take 64 seats in the 120-member Parliament . This is Labour’s greatest victory in almost 50 years and the biggest victory of any party since the nation adopted a proportional representation voting system, which gives assembly seats to any party winning more than 5% vote, in 1996. The Opposition centre-right National Party won 26.8% of the vote and is projected to take 35 seats, down from the 56 seats it won in the previous election. Ms. Ardern, who came to power in 2017 by forming a coalition with the Greens and the nationalist New Zealand First party, faced unprecedented challenges in her first term, from the Christchurch terrorist attack and the White Island volcanic eruption to the COVID-19 outbreak. She herself had turned the polls into a de facto referendum on her government’s handling of the pandemic by calling it the ‘COVID election”. New Zealand, home to over five million, recorded just 25 pandemic deaths — one of the lowest fatality rates in the world. It has eliminated community transmission by imposing strict lockdowns and brought back relative normalcy before the election.
What makes Ms. Ardern’s victory significant is that her brand of politics — socially liberal, economically inclusive and politically democratic — has bucked the trend of conservatives and the anti-immigrant, anti-minority far-right parties making gains in crisis-ridden societies. Offering a new way of governance, she presented herself as an empathetic co-citizen who happens to be running the government. This approach was successfully tested when a far-right terrorist opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019, killing 51. She immediately reached out to the country’s Muslim minority and backed a Bill that banned most assault style weapons. She has also promised to alleviate child poverty and fight climate change more vigorously. Inclusive politics and a humane approach, coupled with quick decisive actions to tackle crises, transformed her into the most popular New Zealand leader. But the emphatic victory also means great expectations. The lockdowns have had a heavy economic cost — a contraction by 12.2% in April-June. One of the criticisms she faced during the campaign was that she did not have a recovery plan. The COVID-19 threat is still looming large. She will have to prove her critics wrong and live up to the expectations of those who supported her while ruling for, what she said, “all New Zealanders”.