WELLINGTON • New Zealanders will go to the polls in September, in a vote that will test whether Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's widespread popularity overseas is matched by support at home.
The centre-left leader yesterday announced a general election on Sept 19, two months ahead of the last possible date for the ballot, when she will seek a second three-year term.
"I will be asking New Zealanders to continue to support my leadership and the current direction of the government, which is grounded in stability, a strong economy and progress on the long-term challenges facing New Zealand," Ms Ardern said.
The 39-year-old's first term has won her international fame - she became a mother while in office and also received much praise for her sensitive handling of the Christchurch mosque killings and the White Island volcano tragedy.
But while she has been feted overseas, opinion polls show her standing at home has slipped.
Opposition leader Simon Bridges has led the centre-right National Party into more populist territory, attacking Ms Ardern over a land row with Maori groups as well as for her gun buy-back scheme after the Christchurch killings.
She has also come under fire for her party's long-running KiwiBuild scheme, which was designed to make owning a home more affordable by constructing 100,000 properties, but has so far failed to match expectations.
Mr Bridges reacted to the election announcement by pledging to lead a government that "will deliver" on its promises.
"New Zealanders know we will get things done, whether it's more money in your pocket, a stronger economy, less tax, building infrastructure and roads or keeping families safer from increasing gang violence," he said.
The most recently published opinion polls, produced late last year, showed Mr Bridge's National Party ahead. But Ms Ardern's Labour Party, with its New Zealand First and Green Party allies, could muster enough support to remain in power, the polls showed.
The election call comes just days before the government is to announce details of a NZ$12 billion (S$10.7 billion) infrastructure spending package designed to stimulate the economy, which has been struggling under low growth amid the rising cost of living.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the infrastructure spending will target roads, rail, schools and healthcare projects across the country.
ANZ Bank's latest economic outlook said this would add to an "improved domestic outlook" and it expected the central bank to keep the official cash rate on hold at 1 per cent for the foreseeable future.
Political pundits are predicting a close contest. "I am not making predictions on this as it's going to be a tight race," said Dr Grant Duncan, associate professor at Massey University in Auckland.
Besides the election, New Zealanders will also be voting in referendums on the divisive issues of legalising cannabis and euthanasia.
The cannabis referendum, pushed through by the Greens, would bring younger voters to the polls, but there are concerns that there are too many things going on, said Dr Duncan.
"The big issue is how people feel about the government's performance... its performance in relation to housing and child poverty, and there will be a debate about climate change," he added.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS