The corona virus seems to have been banned in New Zealand. This success will almost certainly lead to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s party winning the elections with force majeure on Saturday.
Hardly anyone could reach the auditorium of the University of Wellington, where New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave a campaign speech this week. About a thousand students were packed together listening to the prime minister, who hopes to be re-elected in parliamentary elections on Saturday. Nobody kept their distance, not even Ardern. Nobody wore a face mask.
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Another scene from last week. On Saturday, the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, played in Wellington against nemesis Australia. The stadium was sold out. More than thirty thousand New Zealanders shouted, shouted, groaned and cheered. Again: no distance, no masks. No corona.
The corona virus seems to have been completely banned in New Zealand. There are still cases of infection, but that only concerns incoming travelers. They will be held in a heavily guarded quarantine center for two weeks after arrival. Beyond that, it’s as if the coronavirus never existed. Since last week, almost all restrictions have been removed.
The corona success will almost certainly ensure that Ardern’s Labor party will win the elections with force majeure on Saturday. Polls show that the Social Democrats will get about half the votes. This beckons the possibility of governing without coalition parties. This would be the first time since the introduction of the current electoral system in 1996.
Although party leaders are doing their best to put other themes on the agenda – employment, poverty reduction, housing construction – the elections are all about corona. Voters are ‘simply not interested’ in something like a new tax plan, Communication Science professor Claire Robinson wrote in the paper The Guardian. ‘The only figures that really matter at the moment are the number of local infections. Those numbers mean the difference between life and death. ‘
Even the timing of the elections was determined by corona. When a new source of infection unexpectedly surfaced in the city of Auckland in August, Ardern postponed the vote by a month, partly at the urging of the opposition. The prime minister himself does not bother: “If people ask whether these are corona elections, then I will say yes,” Ardern said at the kick-off of the campaign.
Best in the world
Blame her. New Zealand’s corona approach is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best in the world. Press agency Bloomberg placed the country at number one last week in a ranking for countries with the best corona policies.
“Get in early and hard,” Ardern called the approach in March. She was one of the first government leaders to ban flights from China and close the airspace to almost all foreigners. The lockdown at the end of March was also one of the strictest in the world. Remarkable, because at that time only 102 infections had been detected and no deaths had occurred. “The government followed the precautionary principle from the start,” said political scientist David Hall of the University of Auckland. ‘Assume the worst and then slowly relax the measures.’
When the kiwis came out of their homes nearly six weeks later, the virus was largely extinguished. The government had used the time to expand the contact investigation and testing capacity, if necessary, 10 thousand residents could be tested daily.
The corona defense became a lot easier, because from that moment on the government could focus on border security. Returning New Zealanders go into government quarantine – ‘managed isolation’ – and are required to undergo two tests. The centers are closely guarded by soldiers and the isolated compatriots are allowed to go out once a day for a walk.
The recent outbreak in Auckland – after a virus-free period of 100 days – was a downer, especially since the cause of the infection was not found. The city of 1.7 million inhabitants had to be partially back in lockdown and there was fear that all efforts had been for nothing. But after a few weeks, Ardern was able to announce that the virus had been “eliminated” again. “Our five million team, which may have been a bit tired, did what our national team does so often: head down and hit it,” said Ardern, throwing another rugby metaphor at it.
First Labor vote
The voters love it. Valuation figures for Ardern have risen to record highs since the start of the pandemic. More than half of New Zealanders want her back as prime minister. “This time I’m voting for Labor for the first time and that’s almost 100 percent because of the response to corona,” said Emily Duguid, 43, who recently returned with her family from the US and is now in an isolation center. “I’m so grateful to Jacinda for protecting my father, mother-in-law, and aunts and uncles, all over 70.”
“In times of crisis, the standard voter response is to walk away unless the government shows competence,” says political scientist Hall. What helps is that the government has always made it clear that the lockdown was necessary in order to be able to live in freedom later. That has also come true. ‘
There is also criticism. Simon Bridges, the ex-leader of the liberal-conservative opposition National Party, called for an end to the lockdown in April over “job losses” and “an increase in stress and mental problems.” It caused a storm of criticism on Facebook, not least from party members. Due to persistent bad polls, Bridges was replaced a month later.
Another marginal argument came from a new party, the Public Party, formed in protest against the corona measures. Leader Billy Te Kahika mainly relies on conspiracy theories. For example, he argues that the coronavirus is used by the United Nations to dominate the world. This week, Facebook removed the party page for spreading lies. In the polls, the party has zero seats.
Concerns about the effect on the economy have so far been mitigated by the government support package. Since March, the New Zealand has been compensating all citizens, including freelancers, if they are out of work due to corona. It concerns a benefit of a maximum of three months.
Opposition parties struggle
These corona elections are a struggle for opposition parties. All established parties have largely rallied behind the government’s corona policy in recent months. That makes it difficult to be distinctive now.
Many election themes are also indirectly related to corona. Take the rising national debt. Everyone agrees that the government must now borrow a lot of money to compensate people, ”Hall said. ‘Then you could argue that large companies have received unjustified support, as the opposition does, but that doesn’t attract many extra votes.’
Before the pandemic, the elections seemed to be quite tense. Ardern’s popularity had fallen sharply, partly because she had broken an important election promise. When she took office, she announced that she would have 100,000 affordable starter homes built in ten years. After two years, the counter was only 141 new homes, after which Ardern had to adjust its target.
According to Hall, the real test for the prime minister is yet to come. The hard corona policy, including closing the borders, is causing an unprecedented economic dip. In the second quarter, the economy shrank by a staggering 12 percent due to the lockdown. The tourism sector in particular will be hit hard on a structural basis. “Ardern is still having a hard time in her second cabinet,” Hall said.
On the other hand, many economists point out that countries that have the virus under control are performing the best so far. The third quarter showed a recovery again.
It is certain that for most New Zealanders the looming recession is now playing a minor role. This also applies to Emily Duguid, who will vote Labor for the first time. “When my father recently brought up the economy, I said, just vote for Jacinda, because if the opposition had been in power in March, you’d be dead by now.”
At the same time as the parliamentary elections, New Zealanders are allowed to vote on two controversial bills; legalizing cannabis and enabling euthanasia. The euthanasia law provides that terminally ill patients may receive assistance with termination of life, provided they have been diagnosed with less than six months to live. The law was passed by parliament a year ago, but will not take effect until a majority of the population agrees. The cannabis law makes it possible for citizens over 20 to buy a maximum of 14 grams of weed per day. The law also makes production legal, certified companies will soon be allowed to purchase and plant cannabis seeds.