WELLINGTON -- New Zealand’s prime minister postponed the country’s general election on Monday by a month to Oct. 17 as the city of Auckland remains in lockdown due to a new outbreak of the coronavirus.
Jacinda Ardern has been under pressure to put off the polls as political parties said it was impossible to campaign in a way that would ensure a free and fair election.
“Ultimately, the 17th of October ... provides sufficient time for parties to plan around the range of circumstances we will be campaigning under,” Ardern said at a news conference.
She ruled out delaying the polls any further, as her Labour Party maintains a strong lead over the conservative National Party in opinion polls.
“We are all in the same boat. We are all campaigning in the same environment,” Ardern said.
An early election works in Ardern’s favour, as her success in stifling COVID-19 and keeping the country virus-free for 102 days until the latest outbreak has boosted her popularity.
The election was scheduled for Sept. 19 and New Zealand law requires it to be held by Nov. 21. Advance voting will now start on Oct. 3.
Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who had called for a delay, said “common sense has prevailed”.
The leader of the populist New Zealand First party delivered government to Labour through a coalition deal after no party won a majority at the 2017 election.
Ardern’s opponents accuse her of using the pandemic to shore up support as she appears on television nearly every day to reassure New Zealanders, while other party leaders struggle to get attention.
Her rivals are hoping Ardern loses some of her appeal once economic hardships caused by the lockdown begin to bite.
With a population of 5 million people, New Zealand has fared far better than most countries during the pandemic. But an abrupt resurgence of COVID-19 last week in Auckland prompted a lockdown, and there’s growing suspicion that the source of the spread was a quarantine facility.
On Friday, Ardern extended a lockdown for Auckland’s 1.7 million residents until Aug. 26, and social distancing rules are in place in other towns and cities. There are 69 active cases in the country.
“Right now the focus must be on finding out exactly what failed so catastrophically at the border so we can be sure it won’t happen again,” National Party leader Judith Collins said on Twitter.