New Zealand opposition leader plays down 'Jacinda-mania'

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

WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand's opposition leader Jacinda Ardern said Monday she was taking nothing for granted despite her meteoric rise in the polls, as early voting opened for this month's general election.

The charismatic 37-year-old has electrified the campaign since taking over the centre-left Labour Party last month, transforming its outlook from near-certain defeat to being narrow favourites in the September 23 election.

Labour's support has surged 20 percentage points under Ms Ardern in a phenomenon local media have dubbed "Jacinda-mania".

While pundits are comparing her to Canada's Justin Trudeau and France's Emmanuel Macron, Ms Ardern insisted she was not buying into the hype. She said voters could swiftly turn on her in the intensity of an election campaign. "I'm taking nothing for granted, there's only 12 days to go and as we've seen in a short space of time a lot can happen," she told Auckland radio station Newstalk ZB. "It's down to the wire and it will be extraordinarily close."

Ms Ardern attributed Labour's resurgence to voter dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Bill English's conservative National Party, which is seeking a record-equalling fourth term in office. "There's a movement for change and I think after nine years people are starting to believe that we're drifting," she said.

Ms Ardern has courted the youth vote campaigning on issues such as free tertiary education, health and housing affordability. However, the self-described "pragmatic idealist" believes a wide cross-section of voters are interested in her progressive agenda, which also includes pledges on climate change and reducing child poverty. "It is my generation that's being affected by that drift most acutely. But having said that, I see parents and grandparents who are as worried about those issues as anyone else," she said.

Ms Ardern said it was vital that Labour translated the enthusiasm it had generated on the campaign trail into votes.

Almost 500 advance voting booths opened across the country on Monday, nearly two weeks before election day. New Zealand's chief electoral officer, Alicia Wright, said the booths had been placed at libraries, churches, supermarkets and even airports to make it as easy as possible to vote.

Ms Wright said more than half of New Zealand's 3.18 million voters were expected to cast their ballots before election day, continuing a trend towards early voting observed in the last election.

"We're providing a better service than we ever have," she told Radio New Zealand. "What we've seen in the 2014 election was that it had doubled - it had gone from 15 per cent (in) 2011 to 30 per cent in 2014. We're anticipating that it is going to be up to 50 per cent this election."

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