Jacinda Ardern's Success: Health Before Economics | International

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a Labor Party rally in Auckland on 3 October.DAVID ROWLAND / EFE

Some 80 volunteers from the Labor Party were gathered a few days ago in an Auckland school auditorium to ask for a vote by phone, when their leader Jacinda Ardern burst into the room. They gasped for a second before breaking into cheers and applause. She thanked them and also picked up a phone: "My calls are always longer than the others," she joked to the journalists who followed the event, and explained how entertaining it is to talk to voters about the issues that concern them.

Ardern knows that the accessible and empathetic image he projects is his best weapon to win the elections on October 17. His Government has prioritized the health of citizens over the economy in the fight against covid-19: when the virus re-entered New Zealand in mid-August (after more than three months without any cases), the first The minister immediately confined the Auckland region to stop the chain of transmission. Thanks to this controversial decision, the second wave of covid has been limited to 179 cases, and no contagion has been detected since September 26.

"The important thing is the lives of the people. The population with which I compare New Zealand is that of Ireland. There, sadly, they have lost more than a thousand lives. Meanwhile here in New Zealand there have been 25 deaths. That is why we put to the citizens first, because the economy is the people and if there are no people to work for, there is no economy either ”, explains to EL PAÍS Labor deputy Anahila Kanongataá-Suisuiki to justify why the Government maintains its strategy to fight the pandemic to despite the fact that this has led to New Zealand entering a recession.

Kanongataá-Suisuiki accompanied Jacinda Ardern during her visit to Labor volunteers on October 3. In this way, the prime minister publicly clothed the candidate who is running for the same electoral seat as the opposition leader, Judith Collins. The center-right National Party has changed leaders three times since May, but Collins has managed to overcome extremely poor results in polls. Her style is much more aggressive than Jacinda Ardern's: she held various ministries during the previous National Party government and for her work as Interior Minister she earned the nickname of Crusher (the one that crushes).

In an interview with EL PAÍS, National Party deputy Simon O'Connor acknowledges that Ardern has handled well the three major crises of his mandate: the terrorist attack against two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019, the eruption of the Whakaari volcano in December of the same year (which caused 21 deaths) and the covid. But there are also criticisms: “For me it is not a question of whether you belong to the Labor Party or the National, because normally when you occupy the highest position, you are expected to know how to deal with crises. But he has managed day-to-day affairs well, "says O'Connor." Child poverty is still a big problem. When I was part of the government there were 5,000 homeless people, now there are 18,000 families waiting for a state house. most of the promises he made, such as building 10,000 homes each year, have not been kept.

The two majority parties have focused their campaign on the measures they will adopt to re-float an economy hit by the pandemic, with job creation as a priority (the unemployment rate is around 4%). It will be a difficult challenge to achieve, as the borders have been closed since March and both formations have promised to reinforce the mandatory quarantine system that allows the return only of New Zealand residents and citizens. At the moment they are only considering opening the borders to countries or regions free of covid such as some of the neighboring islands of the Pacific.

GDP contracted a historic 12.2% between April and June, but the Labor government is confident that the trend will reverse with the data for the next quarter. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern defends that the covid elimination strategy is the one that allows a faster economic recovery. The latest polls indicate that New Zealanders trust his management: the Labor Party remains strong with almost 50% support, while the National Party gets around 30%. If these forecasts are met, Labor would only need the support of its traditional partner, the Greens, to form a government.

With such favorable polls, the Auckland auditorium where the Labor volunteers were gathered had a party atmosphere on 3 October. When the press conference ended, Ardern took his mobile and made a video that he later posted on social networks to encourage his followers to vote for his party: “It's really fun! I have been doing it since I was 17 years old and I have met some of my best friends as a volunteer ”.

In addition to general elections, two referendums are held on Saturday 17: one to legalize euthanasia, the other to allow the recreational use of cannabis. Ardern has voted yes on euthanasia, but refuses to make his vote public at the cannabis consultation. In one of the electoral debates, he admitted that he had tried marijuana before "a long time", a confession that reinforced her image as an honest leader and an ordinary citizen: according to studies by the NZ Drug Foundation, around 80% of New Zealanders have tried this drug.

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