By Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Charlotte Greenfield
WELLINGTON, Sept 23 (Reuters) – New Zealand’s ruling National Party enjoyed a wide lead over the Labour Party with 70 percent of results counted in the country’s general election on Saturday after the most hotly contested race in recent history.
Votes cast for New Zealand’s ruling National Party reached 46.5 percent, while support for the opposition Labour Party was 35.5 percent, according to the Electoral Commission.
The nationalist New Zealand First Party had 7.4 percent of the vote so far, tipping it as a likely kingmaker in the German-style proportional representation system.
Votes for the Green Party, which has a working agreement with Labour, reached 5.9 percent, above the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. Preliminary results are due at 1130 GMT.
National and the Labour Party had been neck and neck in the polls, after the charismatic Jacinda Ardern almost single-handedly changed the chances of the Labour Party after taking over its leadership in August.
But two recent polls have put Bill English’s National Party with a near 10 point lead, after nearly a decade in government.
“I think probably we would have hoped to do a bit better, but it’s still early days,” senior Labour member of parliament Phil Twyford said as votes were tallied.
Photos published by Fairfax media showed Ardern watching intently as the results trickled in from her Auckland living room. She was due to arrive at Labour´s central Auckland headquarters later in the evening.
After a tight race which, which saw Ardern’s popularity coin the term “Jacindamania” in local media, National was reluctant to claim victory this early on.
Steven Joyce, National’s campaign manager and current finance minister, said that it was too early to tell the final result, especially given the historic numbers of advance votes.
“I´m nervous as a kitten on election night,” Joyce said.
A record 1.2 million ballots were cast before the day of the election, accounting for about a third of the 3.3 million New Zealanders enrolled to vote. In past elections, advanced votes were indicative of final results.
TRADE, IMMIGRATION DIFFERENCES
Ardern and English are expected to maintain fiscal prudence, but to differ on monetary policy, trade and immigration. That will likely have implications for the New Zealand dollar, the world’s 11th most-traded currency in 2016.
The results suggested minor parties, in particular the nationalist New Zealand First led by Winston Peters, would play a key role in the formation of government.
Peters, who has been a minister both under National and Labour, stuck firmly to his vow that he would not decide which major party he would back until he had consulted with his party members and the results were finalized on October 12.
“Recent history …points to Winston Peters and New Zealand First having a more workable relationship with Labour,” John Moore at Wellington-based Critical Politics said. “Therefore don’t presume Peters will go with the ‘winning’ party tonight if that party is National.”
“Special votes”, which include ballots from New Zealanders overseas and those who vote outside their home constituencies, will be released on Oct. 7. These accounted for around 12 percent of the vote in the 2014 election and could have a considerable impact.
(Reporting by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Paul Tait and Lincoln Feast)
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