WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is widely expected to win a second term this weekend, buoyed by a decisive yet compassionate leadership style under crisis, with polls showing her centre-left Labour Party comfortably in front.
Ardern's globally lauded responses to the country's worst mass shooting and the coronavirus pandemic were also well received at home, although questions have been asked of Labour's credentials to tackle the looming economic crisis.
While it was initially thought Ardern could lead Labour to the country's first outright majority government since New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system in 1996, more recent polls have indicated she may need to lean on support from the minor Green Party.
That would produce the country's first pure left-leaning government since 1999. Current coalition partner, nationalist New Zealand First, led by deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, is likely to exit parliament, according to the polls.
"It is hard to see an election outcome which does not return Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister," said former Prime Minister Helen Clark and co-chair of a World Health Organization (WHO) panel looking at the global coronavirus response.
"The election occurs in the context of the pandemic, and her response to it has been highly rated," said Clark. Ardern, 40, worked a researcher in Clark's office shortly after graduating university.
Ardern removed all coronavirus restrictions last week after a second series of lockdowns and social distancing measures to eliminate COVID-19 transmission in the country of 5 million.
She this week joined 31,000 rugby fans at a Wellington stadium to watch the All Blacks take on the Australian Wallabies, becoming one of the first international sporting events to allow spectators.
"I say to the world ... welcome to paradise," one fan was captured shouting to television cameras broadcasting the game. Ardern herself is often mobbed at public events by fans bearing selfie sticks.
Still, National leader Judith Collins has clawed back some support for her party by focusing on the tough financial challenge ahead as unemployment rises, recession looms and government coronavirus support packages expire. Collins has warned a left-leaning coalition would mean more taxes and a business-unfriendly environment.
Ardern has long had a small but vocal band of critics at home. Early in her leadership she was labelled 'Stardust' and 'part-time PM' by her critics for turning up more often on the cover of the Vogue magazine than in the corridors of parliament.
Some critics suggest the extraordinary events that have shaped her first term - the pandemic, the Christchurch mosque shootings and the White Island volcano explosion - have masked some shortcomings.
A flagship affordable housing building programme was set back by embarrassing blunders, economic growth has flattened, and her government fell embarrassingly short of its aspirational goals of reducing child poverty and inequality.
Thousands of indigenous Maori - traditionally a key part of Labour's support base - took to the streets last year over land and civil rights. Those protests were viewed as a proxy for a wider disenchantment within the indigenous community over inequalities that leave Maori lagging on social indicators like housing, education and health.
"Jacinda Ardern's Labour-led government ushered in an impressive number of Māori MPs – in fact, a record number. It sounds good but something has been missing. None of them have been a staunch enough voice for Māori," Leigh-Marama McLachlan, a communications leader for her Maori tribe, wrote in an opinion piece in The Guardian this week.
Still, Ardern retains a solid international following as an 'anti-Trump', promoting issues such as social justice, multilateralism, environmental protection and equality in high-profile international forums including the United Nations.
"In a world where the news cycle focuses a lot on the latest utterances of the world’s populist and authoritarian leaders, Jacinda Ardern represents a refreshing and sharp point of difference," said Clark.
The challenge for Ardern will be to redirect some of her international shine homeward while tackling an unprecedented economic crisis.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Jane Wardell)