New Zealand votes for change as center-right National Party takes lead

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SYDNEY — New Zealand moved sharply to the right on Saturday with the National Party, led by businessman-turned-politician Christopher Luxon, poised to form a coalition with the libertarian ACT Party and make good on promises to cut government spending and taxes.

The general election result was a sharp rebuke to the center-left Labour Party, which has lost support as the economy has floundered and has suffered a series of political blows since Jacinda Ardern stepped down as prime minister in January.

Her successor, Chris Hipkins, conceded the election as National and ACT were together projected to win at least half of Parliament’s 120 seats. With 85 percent of the vote counted, they appeared able to form a coalition government without the support of the populist New Zealand First Party.

The Labour Party received only 26.5 percent of the total vote with 85 percent of ballots counted, and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta lost her seat.

“We have splashed blue across the country,” Luxon told supporters, referring to his party’s color.

While a change of government will have little impact on New Zealand’s outward-facing policies — there is broad agreement on the importance of trade and maintaining an independent stance in an increasingly polarized world — it is expected to produce a sharp change in approach domestically.

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Elections in the country of 5 million people are normally fairly parochial affairs. But shorn of Ardern’s international star power, this year’s campaign at times resembled a county election complete with debates over culling feral cats and cellphone usage in schools.

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Luxon, a former Unilever and Air New Zealand executive, ran a campaign centered on the economy, which briefly slipped into recession this year amid soaring inflation and interest rates, making the cost of living a core election issue. National has promised to cut taxes and slash government spending.

He also focused on crime, with the 53-year-old traveling the nation to talk with store owners about increases in shoplifting, “ram raids” — burglaries in which a vehicle is used to breach a building — and gangs.

During his victory speech, Luxon’s vow to “restore law and order” received rapturous applause.

“We all share an interest of living in a safe, stable country that celebrates fairness and wants the best for every New Zealander,” he said.

Local media often poked fun at the similarities of the two main party candidates — both White, middle-aged men with the same first name — by describing the contest as a battle between “the Blue Chris” and “the Red Chris.” (Red is the color of Labour.)

But the choice of Luxon could have global implications. As Washington and Beijing increasingly vie for influence in the Asia-Pacific, both superpowers have been leaning on New Zealand to take more of a stand.

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The ACT Party has said it will support National on spending bills but has demurred from committing to forming a full-blown coalition. Luxon will now enter into negotiations with ACT leader David Seymour over what a coalition cabinet could look like.

There remained a chance late into election night that Luxon might also have to rely on the populist New Zealand First party, however, which would complicate coalition talks.

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Looming over the election was Ardern’s shadow. The former prime minister, who is on a fellowship at Harvard University, led Labour to a historic landslide election in 2020 on the strength of her handling of the Christchurch massacre and the pandemic.

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Even as many people around the world hailed her empathetic leadership and efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus, support in New Zealand began to ebb, contributing to her surprise resignation in January.

Hipkins hoped a back-to-basics approach would reverse Labour’s slipping support, but it instead appears to have lost left-wing votes to the Green Party, which had its best showing ever, and Te Pati Maori, which promotes Indigenous rights.

“Tomorrow morning New Zealanders are going to wake up to not only the promise of a new day, but the promise of a new government and a new direction,” Luxon told supporters. “I cannot wait to get stuck in and to get to work.”

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