In the final days of campaigning before New Zealand holds an election on Saturday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is being greeted like a rock star.
Hundreds of students are crammed into a common area at the Victoria University of Wellington to hear her speak, and her message of hope is being punctuated by thunderous applause. One student volunteer looks on the verge of tears while others are shrinking or singing.
It’s an unusually emotive display in a country where people often pride themselves on keeping things low key.
And yet as Ardern talks in uplifting tones about her plans to address mental health and climate change, she never mentions what many around the world consider her greatest success: leading the effort to stamp out the coronavirus from the nation’s shores.
Nobody in the crowd is social distancing or wearing a mask — they don’t need to because the virus is no longer spreading in New Zealand. Life has returned to normal in the country of five million and Ardern’s popularity has skyrocketed as a result.
“There is cause for optimism,” Ardern tells the crowd. “There is cause for hope. There is reason, I hope, for all of you to look to New Zealand and feel proud — but also, feel willing to keep pushing us to do more, to be more.”
Opinion polls indicate Ardern is on track to win a second term as prime minister. Her liberal Labour Party is polling far ahead of the conservative National Party, led by Judith Collins.
Ardern, 40, is greeted with the same enthusiasm on walkabouts, where her security detail looks nervous as people crush to get selfies with her. Judy Buot, a nurse, came to the Queensgate Shopping Centre near Wellington to see Ardern and said she admires her virus leadership.
“I come from the Philippines. It’s quite hard to see what’s happening to them and especially what’s happening to India and the US,” Buot said. “What she did was actually sort of amazing.”
One question on election night will be whether Labour can win an outright majority in Parliament, something that hasn’t happened since New Zealand implemented a proportional voting system 24 years ago. Typically, parties must form alliances to govern, but this time there’s a chance Ardern and Labour will be able to go it alone.
For her part, Collins, 61, says polls have been wrong before, notably about Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election. Asked by a reporter whether she’d be commiserating on Saturday, Collins laughed.
“I always celebrate on election night,” she said. “I just think it’s a wonderful part of being in a liberal democracy, to be able to do that, and I expect I’ll have a lot to celebrate, thank you.”
Collins took over the party leadership three months ago, the second new leader in a matter of weeks as National looked for ways to counter Ardern’s rising star.
A former lawyer, Collins served as a minister when National was in power and prides herself on a blunt, no-nonsense approach, a contrast to Ardern’s empathetic style. Collins is promising sweeping tax cuts in response to the economic downturn caused by the virus.
The race has turned from the beginning of the year, when polling indicated National was tracking ahead of Labour.