AUCKLAND: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks after the Labour Party won the general election yesterday. - AFP

WELLINGTON: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won a landslide victory in New Zealand's general election yesterday, leveraging success battling COVID-19 into an unprecedented majority she said gave her a mandate for progressive reform. Ardern's center-left Labour Party took 64 seats in the 120-member parliament with 49 percent of the vote, after the youthful and charismatic leader steered the nation through the upheaval wrought by the global pandemic.

"Thank you to the many people who gave us their vote, who trusted us to continue leading New Zealand's recovery," the 40-year-old told cheering supporters. Ardern had dubbed the vote "the COVID election" and campaigned on her government's success in eliminating community transmission of the virus, which has caused just 25 deaths in a population of five million.

The pandemic is one of a string of emergencies that tested Ardern's leadership during a torrid first term, after she rode to an unexpected victory in 2017 polls on the back of a wave of support dubbed "Jacinda-mania". She displayed both empathy and decisive action on gun control after a white supremacist gunman killed 51 Muslim worshippers in the Christchurch mosques attack last year.

Ardern again found herself comforting a shocked nation when a volcanic eruption at White Island, also known as Whakaari, killed 21 people and left dozens more with horrific burns. "There's no doubt the strong, great leadership we've had from Jacinda Ardern has been a massive factor in all this," Labour Party president Claire Szabo said of her party's win on broadcaster TVNZ.

Yesterday's vote marked the first time any leader won an absolute majority since New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system in 1996 and was the party's strongest showing since World War II. Opposition leader Judith Collins conceded an "outstanding result" for Labour and congratulated Ardern on her win. "Boy, we knew it was going to be a tough campaign," said Collins, whose conservative National Party is expected to take around 35 seats after its worst result in nearly 20 years.

Ardern was criticized during her first term for failing to deliver on some key promises such as improving housing affordability, protecting the environment and reducing child poverty. But she said the election had set her up for an active second term. "We have the mandate to accelerate our response and our recovery - and tomorrow we start!" she said, flagging increased state housing, more renewable energy and other infrastructure investment.

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson, whose party governed in coalition with Labour during the first term, said the vote "show how much New Zealanders want a strong, truly progressive government". About 3.5 million people were registered to vote, with well over half casting their ballots early - a much higher figure than previous elections. The vote was originally set for Sept 19 but was delayed by a virus outbreak in Auckland that has now been contained.

Collins, who took over the National Party in July after a period of turmoil when the party had three leaders in three months, said the false start had cost her campaign momentum. Her pitch for the top job had focused on the specter of the Greens forcing Ardern to adopt a wealth tax aimed at the nation's aspirational middle class.

The conservative leader, known as "Crusher" for her hardline policies when police minister in a previous government, has vowed to stay on as leader regardless of the result. Voters also cast ballots in two referendums, to legalize recreational cannabis and euthanasia, although the results of those votes will not be known until Oct 30. - AFP