Polls open in New Zealand’s general election

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Chris Hipkins meets people on the street in Auckland ahead of the polls opening in the country’s general election (New Zealand Herald via AP/PA)
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Chris Hipkins meets people on the street in Auckland ahead of the polls opening in the country’s general election (New Zealand Herald via AP/PA)

New Zealanders began voting on Saturday in a general election, with opinion polls indicating they favour a conservative change after six years of a liberal government led for most of that time by Jacinda Ardern.

Ms Ardern unexpectedly stepped down in January, saying she no longer had “enough in the tank” to do the job justice.

She won the last election with a landslide, but her popularity waned as people tired of Covid-19 restrictions and inflation threatened the economy.

Her departure left Chris Hipkins, 45, to take over as prime minister. He had previously served as education minister and led the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Polling indicates his conservative rival, former businessman Christopher Luxon, remains in the best position to become the nation’s next prime minister when voting closes Saturday night.

New Zealand Election
National Party leader Christopher Luxon waves a flag in front of supporters and a campaign bus in Rotorua, New Zealand (New Zealand Herald via AP/PA)

Under New Zealand’s proportional voting system, Mr Luxon, 53, and his National Party will likely need to form an alliance with other parties to command a majority.

Mr Luxon will need support from the libertarian ACT Party and possibly also from the New Zealand First party led by Winston Peters, 78, a veteran political maverick who this year has found support among disaffected voters including some conspiracy theorists.

Mr Hipkins has said he will not strike a deal with Mr Peters and that a three-party alliance to put Mr Luxon in power would be a “coalition of chaos”.

Mr Luxon has promised tax cuts for middle-income earners and a crackdown on crime. Mr Hipkins has promised free dental care for people younger than 30 and the removal of sales taxes on fruit and vegetables.

Also at stake in the election is the government’s relationship with indigenous Maori. Mr Luxon has promised to axe the Maori Health Authority, which he says creates two separate health systems. Mr Hipkins says he is proud of such co-governance efforts and has accused Mr Luxon of condoning racism.

Within days of taking the reins in January, Mr Hipkins found himself dealing with a crisis after New Zealand was hit by deadly floods and then a cyclone. He quickly jettisoned some of Ms Ardern’s more contentious policies and promised a “back to basics” approach focused on tackling the spiralling cost of living.

Polling numbers for Mr Hipkins and his Labour Party began trending upwards in the last days before the election from a low ebb.

Mr Luxon hugged supporters in Auckland on his final campaign stop as they chanted his slogan to get New Zealand “back on track”.

Earlier in the week, Mr Luxon, who served as chief executive of both Unilever Canada and Air New Zealand, told a crowd in Wellington that he would crack down on gangs.

“I’ve gotta tell you, crime is out of control in this country,” Mr Luxon said. “And we are going to restore law and order, and we are going to restore personal responsibility.”

Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern UK visit
Jacinda Ardern stepped down as prime minister in January (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Mr Luxon also got cheers when he promised to fix the capital’s gridlocked traffic with a new tunnel project.

Mr Luxon is relatively new to politics but held his own against the more experienced Mr Hipkins during televised debates, according to political observers.

But Mr Luxon also made some gaffes, such as when he was asked in a 1News debate how much he spent each week on food.

“I’m personally shopping every Sunday, down in Wellington. Probably about sixty bucks,” Mr Luxon said in a response that was ridiculed on social media as showing him as out of touch with the spiralling cost of groceries.

While most votes will be counted by Saturday night, it could take days or even weeks of negotiations between political parties before the next government is finalised.