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New Zealand's Ardern seeks second term as pandemic-focused polls open
[WELLINGTON] New Zealanders went to the polls on Saturday in a general election that could see Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern strengthen her left-of-centre hold on government or a challenge from conservatives led by Judith Collins.
Labour Party leader Ms Ardern, 40, and National Party chief Ms Collins, 61, are the faces of the election to form the country's 53rd parliament, a pandemic-focused referendum on Ms Ardern's three-year term.
Doors to the polling booths opened at 9 am (2000 GMT on Friday), though a record number of voters had already cast their ballots in advance.
Restrictions are in place on what news media can report about the race until polls close at 7pm (0600 GMT), after which the Electoral Commission is expected to begin releasing preliminary results.
The election was delayed by a month after new Covid-19 infections in Auckland, that led to a second lockdown in the country's largest city.
New Zealand, with a population of five million, currently has no community cases of Covid-19 and is among only a few nations where people are not required to wear masks or follow social distancing.
Labour is seeking a second term on the back of Ms Ardern's success in containing Covid-19, while Ms Collins argues she is best placed tackle the post-pandemic financial challenges.
The Electoral Commission said on Saturday that almost two million ballots had already been cast as of Friday, accounting for more than half of the roughly 3.5 million New Zealanders on the electoral rolls.
Special votes, including ballots from New Zealanders overseas and those who vote outside their home constituencies, will only be released on Nov 6.
New Zealanders are also voting on referendums to legalise euthanasia and recreational marijuana. The latter vote could make New Zealand only the third country in the world to allow the adult use and sale cannabis nationwide, after Uruguay and Canada.
Results of the referendums be announced on Oct 30.
New Zealand switched to a mixed member proportional system in 1996 in which a party or coalition needs 61 of Parliament's 120 seats - usually about 48 per cent of the vote - to form a government.
This means minor parties often play an influential role in determining which major party governs.