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New Zealand election: Jacinda Ardern poised to secure second term as nation goes to the polls

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New Zealanders have been going to the polls on Saturday as Jacinda Ardern seeks a second term as prime minister.

A record number of voters cast early ballots in the two weeks leading up to the election, which was delayed for a month after a coronavirus outbreak in Auckland.

Opinion polls have made grim reading for Ms Ardern’s challenger Judith Collins, leader of the conservative National Party, with Labour expected to sweep back into power.

Early results suggested that Ms Ardern’s party could be in line to win an outright majority, which has not happened since New Zealand introduced the mixed-member proportional representation electoral system in 1996.

NZ First, Labour’s current coalition partner, is at risk of dropping out of Parliament after opinion polls put the party below the 5 per cent threshhold.

Typically, parties must form alliances to govern, but this time there is a chance Ms Ardern and Labour will be able to go it alone.

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The incumbent appeared relaxed as she brought homemade cheese scones to campaign volunteers in Auckland.

On the campaign trail, Ms Ardern, 40, has been greeted like a rock star by people who have crammed into malls and spilled onto streets to cheer her on and get selfies with her.

Her popularity soared earlier this year after she led a successful effort to stamp out the coronavirus.

New Zealand Labour Party supporters react as results are showed on a screen at a party event after the polls closed in Auckland (AP)

There is currently no community spread of the virus in the nation of five million and people are no longer required to wear masks or socially distance.

Ms Ardern’s rival Ms Collins says she still believes she can win and that polls have been wrong before, notably about Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election.

The prime minister won the top job after the 2017 election when Labour formed an alliance with two other parties.

The following year, she became only the second world leader to give birth while in office.

She became a role model for working mothers around the world, many of whom saw her as a counterpoint to US president Donald Trump.

New Zealand Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern’s press secretary Andrew Campbell holds food for media made by partner Clarke Gayford (Getty Images)

And she was praised for her handling of last year’s attack on two Christchurch mosques, when a white supremacist gunned down 51 Muslim worshippers.

She moved quickly to pass new laws banning the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons.

In late March this year, when only about 100 people had tested positive for Covid-19, Ms Ardern and her health officials put New Zealand into a strict lockdown with a motto of “go hard and go early”.

New Zealand First supporters watch the election results come in at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell (Getty Images)

She shut the borders and outlined an ambitious goal of eliminating the virus entirely rather than just trying to control its spread.

With New Zealand having the advantage of being an isolated island nation, the strategy worked.

New Zealand eliminated community transmission for 102 days before a new cluster was discovered in August in Auckland.

Ms Ardern swiftly imposed a second lockdown in Auckland and the new outbreak faded away. The only new cases found recently have been among returning travellers, who are in quarantine.

Ardern admits to using cannabis in her youth in NZ election debate

The Auckland outbreak also prompted Ms Ardern to postpone the election by a month and helped increase the early voter turnout.

Ms Collins, 61, is a former lawyer. She served as a minister when National was in power and prides herself on a blunt, no-nonsense approach, a contrast to Ms Ardern’s empathetic style.

The challenger is promising sweeping tax cuts in response to the economic downturn caused by the virus.

In the election, voters also have a say on two contentious social issues – whether to legalise marijuana and euthanasia.

Polls indicate the euthanasia referendum is likely to pass, while the marijuana vote remains close.

Reporting by the Associated Press

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