Ardern’s deft handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and resolute belief in science and experts was credited with earning the trust of New Zealanders, who cast early votes in record numbers, giving her party more votes than at any other election in the past five decades.
With nearly 100% of the vote counted, Labour had secured 49%, with the opposition National party on 27%. Labour was expected to win 64 of the 120 seats in parliament, and National, 35. It is the best result for the Labour party in 50 years, being hailed as “extraordinary” by the former Labour prime minister Helen Clark, and “mind-blowing” by supporters.
The leader of the opposition, Judith Collins, congratulated Ardern on the “outstanding result” on Saturday night, but refused to answer questions from reporters on whether she would stay on as leader.
Speaking to a 1,000 people at Auckland town hall, Ardern thanked the nation for the strong mandate. She said elections “don’t have to be divisive” and promised to govern with cooperation and positivity, adding that New Zealand could set an example by showing elections don’t have to mean people “tear one another apart”.
She said: “We are living in an increasingly polarised world, a place where more and more people have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view. I hope in this election New Zealand has shown that this is not who we are. That as a nation we can listen, and we can debate. After all, we are too small to lose sight of other people’s perspective. Elections aren’t always great at bringing people together. But they also don’t need to tear one another apart.
“At times of crisis, I believe New Zealand has shown that. This has not been an ordinary election and it is not an ordinary time. It’s been full of uncertainty and anxiety – and we set out to be an antidote to that.”
The words were interpreted as a veiled allusion to the divisive US election, due to take place in two weeks.
Ardern had tears in her eyes as she took to the podium, and appeared moved by the show of support for her party, and leadership. Earlier this week she had said she would quit politics if she was not re-elected.
The first 30 seconds of Ardern’s address was in fluent Māori – the language of New Zealand’s Indigenous people.
To cheers, Ardern said: “I cannot imagine a people I would feel more privileged to work on behalf of, to work alongside and to be prime minister for. Tonight’s result does give Labour a very strong and very clear mandate.”
If it chooses, Labour will not have to rely on a minor party to form a government.
This would make Ardern’s 2020 government the first since 1996 to govern alone, giving it a seismic advantage to pass progressive policy on issues such as climate change, affordable housing and child poverty.
In her first term as leader, Ardern struggled to enact the transformational change she had promised voters. It is understood she was stymied by her necessary coalition agreement with NZ First – a right-leaning, socially conservative minor party.
They have now been decisively voted out of government, failing to meet the 5% threshold.
Ardern has yet to decide if she will invite the Green party into government; but even without them, the new government will be significantly more progressive and left-leaning than its previous iteration.