New Zealand election up in the air as 'Jacindamania' propels opposition Labour party to pole position

New Zealand's new opposition Labour party leader, Jacinda Ardern, speaks during an event held ahead of the national election at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand on Aug 23, 2017.
New Zealand's new opposition Labour party leader, Jacinda Ardern, speaks during an event held ahead of the national election at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand on Aug 23, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The race to form New Zealand's next government took an unexpected turn on Thursday (Aug 31) as a "bombshell" poll showed the opposition Labour party had overtaken the ruling National party, threatening its almost decade-long hold on power.

Prime Minister Bill English, 55, a political veteran and former finance minister, faces a highly contested race against Labour's Jacinda Ardern, 37, whose charisma and rising popularity have prompted domestic media to coin the term "Jacindamania".

National fell three points to 41 per cent, its lowest result since 2005, in a poll commissioned by 1 News and published on its website only an hour before Mr English and Ms Ardern face off in a debate.

Support for the newly invigorated Labour party jumped six points to 43 per cent, after the last-minute leadership change boosted its chances.

"This is a bombshell," said Mr Bryce Edwards, political analyst at Wellington-based Critical Politics. "It does mean that this campaign has turned on its head. National being in second place is entirely unexpected for the last ten years."

The result pushed the New Zealand currency to a three-month low of $0.7148 as the result at the Sept 23 election looks increasingly uncertain.

Ms Ardern, took the helm of the Labour Party this month, after poor poll results prompted the resignation of Mr Andrew Little, breathing fresh air into an election that until then had been widely considered a slam dunk for National.

National or Labour would still need to strike a deal with smaller parties to form a government in New Zealand's German-style proportional voting system.

The Green Party, with which Labour has an agreement to work, edged up to 5 per cent. The two parties would probably still need the nationalist New Zealand First party, which slipped two points to 8 per cent, to form a government.