Best known in recent times for aggressively handling the COVID-19 crisis unlike any other country in the world, New Zealand has emerged as a nation punching way above its class -and being awfully successful at it.
New Zealand has long escaped a history of being a former British colony, and is now a global heavy-hitter with a high quality of life, economic freedom and overall satisfaction of its citizens, despite its small size and geographical distance from the rest of the world.
Kiwis hold themselves to a high standard of New Zealand exceptionalism, and the country has certainly proved that such a standard exists after it came out virus-free back in August, when the entire world was struggling to contain a pandemic that has cost us 1.2 million lives in less than a year.
New Zealand, home to 4.8 million people, held its general election in mid-October. With the world closely watching the country and wondering if it would re-elect incumbent Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern just as the election polls suggested, Kiwis erased any doubt by giving Ardern's centre-left Labour Party a landslide victory, the likes of which had not been witnessed in over 2 decades.
The election was largely a referendum on the Ardern Government's handling of the COVID crisis, which put all of New Zealand into lockdown for 75 days, with stringent restrictions placed on public gatherings. Itemerged virus-free back in August, but soon re-imposed restrictions after two Australian tourists tested positive for the virus. The country then later re-declared itself COVID-free and hasn't had a single reported case since September 25.
A picture of a crowd of over 30,000 maskless people packed closely together at the Wellington Stadium went viral in early October, contrasting the difference between New Zealand and the rest of the world, a world still engaged in a heated battle against the coronavirus.
Labour ended up winning 49.1% of the total vote, securing 64 out of 120 seats in New Zealand's unicameral legislative body. This was the first time since 1996 that a single party won an outright majority in Parliament without needing to enter into a coalition to form a majority.
The Labour Party's conservative rival, the National Party, secured 27% of the total vote, a little over half of Labour's share in the total vote.
The election was mainly driven by Mrs Ardern's promise of tackling social inequality and the immense work of rebuilding the New Zealand economy, which shrank annually by 2% this year, entering into a deep recession and a strained healthcare system.
Ms Ardern's primary opponent, the National Party's Judith Collins, promised short term tax cuts while Mrs Ardern said that she'd raise taxes on the top earners, but the two showed little difference in major policies.
Although recent polling showed that Labour was already set up for a landslide victory, pre-COVID times saw a waning of Labour's popularity as it failed to address some key issues that plagued New Zealand. As a result, most polls before the coronavirus pandemic showed that the National Party was the people's choice this year, which would mean that Labour's government would come to an end after just one term, a situation that is quite uncommon in New Zealand politics.
When people cast their ballots, it was more of a vote for Jacinda Ardern, than a vote for the Labour Party. Her popularity among the youth of New Zealand and her status as a new breed of "celebrity politician" was the driving force behind her campaign and propelled her party to victory.
She had won the adoration of the world when she defended immigrants and placed a ban on assault rifles after the Christchurch shooting; as well as her inspirational speech on her first visit to the United Nations headquarters as a world leader.
This, however, did not make her as popular back home, with many still disappointed in her failure to deliver on her promise of transforming New Zealand's government. Although she successfully tackled the Coronavirus, many of her detractors criticised her failure to curb the housing crisis that was exacerbated by the pandemic.
In her victory speech, she said that elections "don't have to be divisive" and pledged to govern with positivity and cooperation. She said: “We are living in an increasingly polarised world, a place where more and more people have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view. I hope in this election New Zealand has shown that this is not who we are. That as a nation we can listen, and we can debate. After all, we are too small to lose sight of other people’s perspective. Elections aren’t always great at bringing people together. But they also don’t need to tear one another apart.
“At times of crisis, I believe New Zealand has shown that. This has not been an ordinary election and it is not an ordinary time. It’s been full of uncertainty and anxiety – and we set out to be an antidote to that.”
Alongside the election of its government, New Zealand also held two referendums - one to legalise euthanasia for terminally ill people, and another to legalise the recreational use of cannabis.
The referendum on euthanasia received an overwhelming amount of approval, and New Zealand is set to join a group of 5 other countries that take a progressive stance on active euthanasia. The measure had bipartisan backing and was amongst the issues that Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins agreed upon.
The cannabis referendum, however, received an opposition of 53% and is set to fail. New Zealand's Justice Minister, Andrew Little has said that the country would drop all efforts to legalise or decriminalise the drug. Proponents of the legalisation measure criticised Mrs Ardern for not voicing her support for legislative action towards legalisation.
The Ardern Government has an optimistic future ahead, and the world will watch New Zealand as it attempts to revive an economy troubled by recession and a housing crisis, led by a government that no longer has to rule by coalition and therefore has greater freedom to enact the change that Mrs Ardern promised three years ago. While she has raised the minimum wage, increased paid parental leave, banned future oil and gas exploration and increased benefits for the neediest New Zealanders, the road ahead is just as hard as it is promising.
Author: Sameep Baral