When “Jacindamania” swept the country three years ago, town halls, pubs and stadiums were crowded with supporters wherever Jacinda Ardern went. The charismatic but relatively unknown young Labour leader electrified the campaign, and the populace.
Young women daubed their faces with red paint and election fever gripped voters in a way never before seen in New Zealand, which usually prefers a more sedate style of politics.
Fast forward to 2020 and any signs of mania have been stifled by preoccupations with coronavirus, and the country’s weirdest general election is underway.
The once animated and high-voltage race has been replaced by a strained atmosphere, with candidates in face masks awkwardly elbow-bumping locals and practising social-distancing from the general public they are attempting to win over.
Leader debates are taking place without a live studio audience, and carry a muted air. More than one political party has made policy announcements in muddy paddocks – setting the decidedly underwhelming tone.
“It is a really, really strange election, very odd,” says Dr Jennifer Lees-Marshment, an expert in elections and political communication from Auckland University.
“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.”
Amid a horror year Kiwis – including politicians – appear to have no appetite or energy for the usual hullaballoo of a general election.
“If it feels hard – that’s because it has been,” Ardern told New Zealanders in August, as a new Covid-19 cluster spread. “2020 has frankly been terrible.”
From ‘transformative change’ to a year of emergency
When Ardern took over the Labour party seven weeks out from 2017’s general election, she won the hearts and minds of voters with her promises of transformative, systemic change. Climate change mitigation, ending child poverty and tackling the housing crisis became her defining promises, and the language she deployed was aspirational, built around words such as “hope” and “kindness”.
But nearing the end of her three-year term, the sparkle has gone, and her promises are firmly grounded in dealing with the unappealing quagmire of the present; job losses, rising levels of poverty and hardship, and a sputtering economy.
She is also doing far less media than in 2017, preferring instead to control the narrative via her own social media channels, where she shares photographs of what she had for breakfast and smiling images of her working the phones.
“When people ask, is this a Covid election, my answer is yes, it is,” Ardern said when she opened her campaign in August.
“It has been our new reality and one that the team of 5 million have made work in the most extraordinary way”.
This new reality has translated into strong poll numbers for Ardern – but she says she isn’t taking anything for granted. The result is a stilted campaign.
“I think everyone is treading on eggshells a bit,” notes Lees-Marshment.
“Jacinda Ardern is an incredibly effective prime minister, she has extremely high levels of competence and is widely respected, both nationally and internationally. But she’s lacking energy, she’s lacking passion and she isn’t speaking in people terms- even though that is her phenomenal skill.”
“She is governing and campaigning in the midst of a global crisis, and that is very unusual.”
New Zealand has had fewer than 2,000 Covid-19 infections and only 25 deaths. In August, after 100 days without new domestic infections, the disease re-emerged, requiring the country’s largest city to re-enter lockdown. Despite the hiccup, the nation seems to be back on the path to controlling the virus and a lot of its success has been credited to Ardern.
In a poll in May Ardern’s popularity reached record highs, making her the most popular New Zealand PM in a century.
“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.”
‘New Zealanders just want it over’
But it hasn’t always been plain sailing. 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.
In reality, the Labour party stumbled frequently during its first term, and many of their flagship policies have been put on ice due to opposition from Winston Peter’s New Zealand First party, with whom they are in coalition.
Ardern’s critics say she has repeatedly failed to deliver on her sweeping 2017 promises, and that her ambitious climate change pledges will cripple New Zealand’s agriculture based economy.
But major mistakes such as the KiwiBuild fiasco, the failure to implement a capital gains tax, and rising levels of social deprivation, appear to have slipped from the public consciousness. When they are brought up by the National party their criticisms appear to have had little effect.
For the opposition, gearing up for the campaign has been difficult, with party veteran Judith Collins only recently becoming the third leader of the party this year.
National is polling 17 percentage points behind Labour (48 to 31), and in the preferred prime minister rankings, Ardern has been consistent at 54% since June, while Collins – not even party leader then – has dropped to 18%, a fall of 2%.
While narrowly deemed the winner of Tuesday’s debate, Collins hasbeen described as “going through the motions” by local reporters travelling with her on the road. An experienced, clever and witty political performer, she is yet to generate momentum that her campaign needs.
Collins - playing to her strengths as the daughter of dairy farmers - has spent asignificant amount of time in rural areas, promising to champion the rights of farmers.
At the last debate, Ardern informed Collins that her views on farming “feels like the view of the world that has passed,”. The off-hand comment played badlywith supporters and detractors alike, and it is with the agriculture sector that Labour - and Ardern personally - poll most poorly.
Yet 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 MMP electoral system was meant to prevent.
“It’s a really unusual election, the background to it is just bizarre,” says 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. And I think most New Zealanders feel the same way about the election – they just want it over, and they just want Jacinda Ardern and her government back.”
Although New Zealand has so far escaped the worst of the virus, it has nonetheless been a year from hell.
Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and the country is officially in a recession. Families and partners are separated by closed borders, farmers can’t find workers to pick their crops, and the future is precarious for many.
“I don’t think that your average voter who has gone over from National to Labour is thinking about the science [of Covid-19],” said Ben Thomas, a public relations consultant and former National government staffer. “They think that Jacinda is making good decisions and looking after us.”
New Zealand’s Covid-19 success has become intermingled with Ardern’s leadership, he said. In voters’ minds: “If she makes an unpopular decision it’s because it was dictated by the science, and if she makes a popular one, it’s that she made a good call.”
Godfery agrees, saying Ardern’s competent handling of the virus means she now garners broad trust and respect across the board: “an enviable place for any politician to be in.”
“Jacinda Ardern is playing it straight down the middle and is not taking any risks – simply because she doesn’t need to.”