Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has delayed New Zealand's elections by four weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak in Auckland.
The election had been scheduled for September 19 but will now be held on October 17. Opposition parties had sought a delay after the virus outbreak prompted the government last week to put Auckland under a two-week lockdown and halted election campaigning.
Before the latest outbreak, New Zealand had gone 102 days without any known community transmission of the virus, and life had returned to normal for most people, with restaurants and schools open and sports fans back in stadiums. The only known cases during that time were returning travelers who were quarantined at the border.
All parties suspended the campaign last week due to restrictions ordered to tackle this new epidemic wave, the origin of which remains unknown.
Four first cases within the same family had been spotted at the beginning of the week. It was 58 confirmed cases Monday, including five people who were hospitalized.
The archipelago opted for the same strategy as the one it had followed in the spring, by isolating the positive cases, massively testing the population and tracing the contacts of the infected people.
Officials believe the virus was reintroduced to New Zealand from abroad but haven’t yet determined how.
Ardern's party leads in the polls
Ardern had the option of delaying the election for up to about two months. She said she had called the leaders of all the political parties represented in the parliament to get their views before making her decision Monday.
“Ultimately I want to ensure we have a well-run election that gives all voters the best chance to receive all the information they need about parties and candidates, and delivers certainty for the future,” Ardern said.
She said she wouldn't consider delaying the election again — no matter what was happening with any virus outbreaks.
“COVID is continuing to disrupt life around the world," Ardern said. Other nations including South Korea and Singapore had nevertheless managed to hold elections during the pandemic, she added.
Ardern also announced that lawmakers would be called back to parliament, which had finished sitting ahead of the election. The parliament will now continue operating through early September.
Conservative opposition leader Judith Collins did not offer much of an opinion on the delay, saying only that her National Party “acknowledge the new date” while also saying there had been testing failures at the border.
But the small opposition ACT party welcomed the delay. Leader David Seymour said the new outbreak had already forced him to cancel a dozen events, including debates and community meetings
“In order to have a free and fair election, candidates need to be out in the community listening to voters, and that’s not possible while Aucklanders are housebound," he said in a statement.
The delay will cause logistical problems, including rebooking voting venues and ensuring that the thousands of election workers needed for the poll are available on the new date. Ardern said she believed there was enough time to organize everything.
Opinion polling indicates Ardern's liberal Labour Party is favored to win a second term in office. The party's popularity has jumped significantly since the pandemic, with Ardern winning international praise for the way she's handled the crisis.