SYDNEY, Australia — New Zealand said today it would postpone its national election by four weeks as a cluster of new coronavirus cases continued to spread through the city of Auckland despite a lockdown.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has the sole authority to determine when people cast ballots, said she had consulted with all the major parties before delaying the vote, originally scheduled for Sept. 19, to Oct. 17.
Ardern called the decision a compromise that “provides sufficient time for parties to plan around the range of circumstances we could be campaigning under, for the electoral commission to prepare and for voters to feel assured of a safe, accessible and critical election.”
She also ruled out further change. Even if the outbreak worsens, she said, “we will be sticking with the date we have.”
The shift keeps Election Day within the time frame allowed under the law — the latest possible date is Nov. 21 — but it also highlights the national concern as a cluster of at least 58 new cases frustrates investigators, clears the streets of Auckland and suspends scheduled campaign events.
Ardern’s approval ratings skyrocketed after the country’s first lockdown, in late March, led to what health officials described as the elimination of the virus and a return to life verging on normal, with crowded restaurants, stadiums and schools. Now, she faces greater scrutiny over what went wrong and how long the country will have to endure another round of restrictions.
“If it transpires that there was a considerable oversight, lax regulation or flawed implementation, that could have a very significant impact on the narrative,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.
But, he added, “there is a deep reservoir of good will toward the prime minister,” and it is possible that the way she has handled the election delay will only bolster her chances.
“She might have just added 5% to her polling by making an announcement that many New Zealanders will think is reasonable, fair and sensible,” Shaw said.
He added the election delay was inevitable in part because the September date would have required the dissolution of Parliament on Monday to allow for a month of campaigning. Parliament will now be dissolved Sept. 6.
“She needed to be seen as responding to this,” Shaw said of Ardern. “It’s a straightforward political decision.”
New Zealand’s election is far from the first to be postponed because of the pandemic. Hong Kong cited the virus in delaying by a year a Legislative Council vote; more than a dozen U.S. states moved the date of their primaries, as did New York City. And though President Donald Trump floated the idea of delaying the general election, he was promptly shut down by members of Congress and his own party.
In the short-term, Ardern’s delay will allow her government to focus primarily on the virus. Health officials in New Zealand are still scrambling to test thousands of workers at airports and other points of entry, along with quarantine facilities and a frozen food warehouse, to try to determine how the virus re-emerged last week after 102 days without known community transmission.
On Sunday, officials announced 12 new cases tied to the cluster of four from last Sunday. On Monday, they announced nine more.
Pressure on Ardern and her Labour Party to change the date had been building over several days. A New Zealand Herald-Kantar poll taken over the weekend showed that 60% of New Zealanders favored a delay.
The leaders of other major parties also argued that the Level 3 lockdown in Auckland, the country’s largest city, prevented campaigning and would have made a free and fair election impossible on the original date.
Winston Peters, the deputy prime minister and leader of the New Zealand First Party, Ardern’s coalition partner, said in a letter to Ardern last week that until the alert level dropped in Auckland, the “playing field is hopelessly compromised.”
The National Party’s leader, Judith Collins, has said that she would prefer that the election be moved to next year, which would require approval from 75% of Parliament.
On Monday, Collins said the focus must be on determining what led to the current outbreak “so we can be sure it won’t happen again.”
What the delay means for Ardern and her party’s prospects in the election may depend on the vicissitudes of the virus.
In the announcement Monday, Ardern sought to portray the delay as an example of her willingness to listen to the public and make tough decisions.
“COVID is the world’s new normal,” she said. “Here in New Zealand, we are working as hard as we can to make sure our new normal disrupts our lives as little as possible.”