New Zealand election: Jacinda Ardern promises stability as she sets poll date

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced her country’s next general election will be held on 19 September, firing the starting pistol on a campaign race lasting more than seven months.

On Tuesday, Ardern said the forthcoming election campaign would be “positive, factual and robust”, and that her party had signed up to Facebook’s advertising transparency tool to counter misinformation.

“I will be asking New Zealanders to continue to support my leadership and the current direction of the government, which is grounded in stability, a strong economy and progress on the long-term challenges facing New Zealand,” she said.

“We are running an established and effective MMP [mixed member proportional] government, and overseeing a strong economy with low unemployment and growth rates that others look to with envy, outstripping countries we often compare ourselves to, like Australia and the UK while making critical investments in health and education and reducing child poverty.”

Professor Jennifer Curtin, director of Auckland University’s public policy institute said despite Ardern’s best intentions, it would be difficult to keep the forthcoming election clean.

“This will not guarantee the New Zealand voter against negative elements and misinformation, some of which has already begun – there are lessons from the Australian election in this regard, particularly in regards the media’s role in fact checking,” Curtin warned.

Related: Jacinda Ardern calls for 'factual and positive' New Zealand election campaign

Two divisive referendums will also appear on the ballot papers on 19 September. One, on whether to legalise marijuana for recreational use, and another on whether to legalise euthanasia. This could mean higher voter turnout, Curtin said, and research showed “the position of parties, images of the political leaders and their stand on the issue” could influence the referendum results.

Increased turnout might be more likely to benefit smaller parties and possibly Labour as the National party’s demographic base have higher levels of turnout, said Curtin, and more people casting early votes was likely.

After the announcement, Simon Bridges, leader of the opposition National party, said his party had experience leading the country with a stable and competent hand.

“A government I lead will deliver on its promises … when I say I’ll do something, I will do it,” Bridges said. “New Zealanders know we will get things done, whether it’s more money in your pocket, a stronger economy, less tax, building infrastructure and roads or keeping families safer from increasing gang violence.”

“New Zealanders have seen that Labour and Jacinda Ardern can’t deliver. While there’s a lot of announcements, leadership means actually getting things done.”

There have long been rumours that Bridges, who is famously unpopular, will be overthrown before the election, with Judith Collins – known as “Crusher Collins” – the frontrunner for the role.

Ardern consistently polls far ahead of Bridges, though her party’s popularity is less dramatic when compared with National.

New Zealand operates under an MMP election system and holds general elections every three years – which many in power say is too short a cycle, and keeps them in constant campaigning mode.

Political scientist Bryce Edwards said that by announcing the election so early, Ardern “receives kudos for her openness, and she appears more confident”.

“The 2020 election campaign appears to be extraordinarily open and unpredictable, things could change dramatically as the campaign progresses,” Edwards said. “Small shifts in the published opinion polls will dramatically alter how people perceive what is happening. And as with previous campaigns – such as when Jacinda Ardern became the Labour leader seven weeks before polling day – we should expect some upsets. It’s likely to be volatile and highly competitive election year.”

There are 120 seats in New Zealand parliament. At the previous election, in 2017, Ardern won the right to govern by forming a coalition with the Green party and New Zealand First.

The 2017 election was one of the most exciting New Zealand had seen, with Ardern taking over as Labour party leader just seven weeks out from polling day, and electrifying the race with ambitious plans to end the housing crisis, reduce child poverty and make the country carbon neutral by 2050.

Ardern’s term in office has seen highs and lows. Although she has been lauded for her empathetic leadership during national tragedies such as the Christchurch mosque shootings and the eruption of Whakaari /White Island, some of her government’s more ambitious plans have not eventuated, most notably, to end the housing crisis.

New Zealand’s indigenous population remains over-represented in poor socio-economic outcomes, and accounts for more than 50% of the prison population, despite representing only 14% of the general population. Ardern’s government has a record number of Māori MPs in its ranks, and Māori are strong Labour supporters, but many Māori leaders say Ardern has under-delivered, and failed to keep her Waitangi promises.

Political observers say Ardern has been forced to roll back her aspirational policies repeatedly due to the kingmaker position held by New Zealand First’s Winston Peters, who is also foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

In April last year, Ardern ruled out introducing a capital gains tax (CGT), a longtime promise of her party, and said one would not be introduced under her leadership because she could not reach a consensus with her coalition partners. A working group appointed by Ardern had recommended such a tax, because New Zealand is one of the few developed countries to not have one.

“While I have believed in a CGT, it’s clear many New Zealanders do not,” Ardern said at the time, in one of the biggest blows of her term.

Simon Bridges has said his opposition National party would deliver on its promises if elected in September. Photograph: Nick Perry/AP

Peters held the balance of power in the 2017 election, and after a protracted negotiation period threw his support behind Labour, saying he wanted to shake up the status quo. How he will cast his vote this time is much less clear, as there have been evident tensions between Labour and NZ First throughout their leadership experiment.

“For too many New Zealanders capitalism has not been their friend but their foe, ” Peters said at the time, claiming vulnerable New Zealanders had been left behind while the political elite became richer. “We believe capitalism must regain its human face, and that conviction deeply influenced our decision.”