It’s been called the Covid election, with stability the order of the day.
But it has turned into the weirdest general election campaign New Zealanders have ever seen, with most of the country desperate for it to be over and some semblance of normality to resume in a deeply abnormal year.
After a month’s delay caused by the coronavirus outbreak in Auckland, the country’s largest city, New Zealanders will finally head to the voting booths on Saturday.
But with a record million people having already cast their vote in advance, even voting day will be subdued.
The lack of excitement and muted atmosphere has everything to do with Covid and incumbent Jacinda Ardern’s overwhelming success in managing the pandemic. For many struggling with job losses and uncertainty, the election is an unwelcome speed bump hindering a swift return to their old lives.
For months now, opinion polls have shown the Labour party streets ahead of the opposition National party, and it is currently leading by 15 points on 46%, with Ardern also leading in polls as the preferred prime minister.
National, who have had three leaders in six months, are flailing, with even the indomitable Judith Collins – nicknamed Crusher Collins – failing to ignite, making repeated bizarre missteps – including slamming people with obesity for lacking personal responsibility and planting campaign supporters on her walkabouts.
“I’m very aware that I’m not going to be able to come out, and ‘out-Jacinda’ Jacinda Ardern,” Collins said. “I can be someone [with] a very wicked and naughty sense of humour and it sometimes gets me into trouble. Actually, quite a lot it gets me into trouble.”
Ardern, meanwhile, has remained sanguine throughout. Political analysts have criticised her party for its woolly language, failure to deliver a clear mandate and its vague Covid recovery plan.
But the personal popularity of Ardern has kept her party at record highs in the polls, and after governing through a series of major disasters, she has no more convincing to do.
Dr Jennifer Lees-Marshment, an expert in elections and political communication from Auckland University, said: “It is a really, really strange election, very odd. When you have an election in the midst of a global crisis, it’s very hard for the public and politicians to care about anything else.”
The politics of kindness
When New Zealand closed its borders in mid-March and entered lockdown soon after, Ardern urged New Zealanders to “be kind” to one another. “Check on your neighbours,” she said. “Call your grandma.”
There have been less than 2,000 Covid infections in New Zealand and only 25 deaths. The country’s success at managing the virus has been celebrated by the World Health Organization, among others, and Ardern’s unflappable leadership has endeared her even to those who would usually vote National.
Political analysts say that in times of uncertainty, voters cling to the status quo – and at this moment, Ardern’s politics of kindness and compassion are the cocoon-like support New Zealanders are looking for.
“I think the election will come down to trust, and that of course favours the incumbent prime minister,” said Carl Ebbers, a small businessman in Auckland. “She’s done so well with … all these emergencies we’ve had.”
Commentators say it appears the past two years of New Zealand politics have been forgotten, and the only thing that counts with voters are the past nine months.
Collins said she “doesn’t believe in the polls” and accused Ardern of breaking her promises and “waffling”. She said the prime minister would offer voters only “love and a hug” in the wake of the global pandemic, while she would offer them “hope and a job”, pledging a more robust economic response.
Some political analysts agree that Labour is coasting into a second term on the back of Ardern’s global fame.
But with Collins repeatedly making public gaffes, the National party’s chances of governing are shrinking by the day.
Major mistakes by Labour such as the KiwiBuild fiasco (a scrapped target to build 100,000 homes in 10 years), the failure to implement a capital gains tax and rising levels of social deprivation appear to have slipped from the public consciousness. When brought up by the National party, the criticisms seem to have had little effect.
For many political observers, the question is no longer whether Labour and Ardern will win on 17 October, but if they are able to win an outright majority, allowing them to govern alone, something the design of the nation’s electoral system was meant to prevent.
“It’s a really unusual election; the background to it is just bizarre,” says the political commentator Morgan Godfery. “I can’t wait until it’s over. I am not necessarily a pro-Labour person per se, but I just want them back for the simple reason that they are best placed to run the country during a global pandemic.”
While Labour can be accused of coasting and National of disunity, the 2020 election is far less about politics than at any other point in history.
More than new hospitals, a wealth tax or cleaner rivers, New Zealanders want to feel safe at a time of global uncertainty. And a leader who has twice been nominated for the Nobel peace prize is certainly reassuring.
Ben Thomas, a public relations consultant and former National government staffer, said: “I don’t think your average voter who has gone over from National to Labour is thinking about the science [of Covid-19]. They think that Jacinda is making good decisions and looking after us.”