NZ's ruling National Party regains lead as elections loom

National Party Leader Bill English and Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern are neck and neck as New Zealand voters head to the polls this Saturday after Labour elected a new leader just weeks out from the election and 'Jacindamania' swept the nation.

It holds near double-digit lead over Labour in latest opinion poll as it guns for fourth consecutive term

WELLINGTON • New Zealand's ruling National Party surged back into the lead over the main opposition Labour Party in an opinion poll published three days before the country's general election.

It was the second poll in recent weeks to show Prime Minister Bill English's party, which has held power for a decade, holding a near double-digit lead.

National had 46 per cent support in the One News/Colmar Brunton poll broadcast yesterday in Wellington, up from 40 per cent in the previous survey published on Sept 14.

Labour's support fell to 37 per cent from 44 per cent.

The poll of 1,000 voters was conducted over the past four days.

New Zealanders will vote on Saturday with National trying to win a rare fourth consecutive term on the promise of tax relief and strong economic management.

Labour, revitalised after selecting 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern as leader less than two months ago, is arguing for a change of direction, saying too many people have been left behind.

No party has won an outright majority since the South Pacific nation introduced proportional representation in 1996, and opinion polls have been very volatile and have largely indicated the race is still too close to call.

The nationalist New Zealand First (NZ First) party, which could emerge as a possible kingmaker for the next government, saw support fall to 5 per cent, the threshold needed for a seat in Parliament.

The Green Party, which has an alliance with Labour, improved to 8 per cent.

Despite the fall in support for NZ First, led by Mr Winston Peters, the debate still centred on its potential deciding role, to Mr English's frustration.

"I am suggesting to the voters that they cut the middlemen; I don't like this view that Mr Peters has, that he decides who the government of New Zealand is," said Mr English.

Both Mr English and Ms Ardern said their parties were "neck and neck" in the contest regardless of the latest opinion poll.

"I remain an absolutely optimistic person when it comes to this campaign," Ms Ardern said during their final debate last night before the elections.

Having become leader recently, Ms Ardern has invigorated Labour, and at times opinion polls have showed the party comfortably ahead.

During the debate, Ms Ardern at times appeared to notch up points. She criticised the government for not having taken any measures to avoid the kind of infrastructure failure that caused widespread disruption to air travel this week, when a burst pipeline led to a fuel shortage.

Minor parties often have an outsize role in New Zealand's proportional representation system, in which a party, or combination of parties, needs 61 of Parliament's 120 members - usually about 48 per cent of the vote - to form a government.

Said Dr Bryce Edwards, an analyst at Wellington-based Critical Politics: "More than any election since 1996, it's going to be the minor parties that ultimately decide which of Labour or National end up governing."

Ms Ardern reiterated her first call would be to the Green Party, but that this did not necessarily mean a coalition with it.

"We've said we'll have a phone call. That doesn't mean it's a stitched-up, done deal," she said.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2017, with the headline 'NZ's ruling National Party regains lead as elections loom'. Print Edition | Subscribe