THERE were no masks in sight as about 1,000 university students gave Jacinda Ardern a rock-star reception during her final Wellington campaign rally this week - and the New Zealand prime minister was fine with that.
Ms Ardern, also without a face covering, happily posed for selfies alongside dozens of youthful supporters, rubbing shoulders with a disregard for social distancing that would spark outrage almost anywhere else in the world.
Success containing Covid-19 means masks and distancing are no longer mandatory in New Zealand, an achievement upon which Ms Ardern has staked her political future in this Saturday's general election.
"When people ask, is this a Covid election, my answer is yes, it is," the charismatic centre-left leader said when launching her bid for another three-year term.
Indications so far are that the strategy is working, with Ms Ardern's Labour Party enjoying a strong lead in opinion polls after a campaign light on policy detail but full of references to quashing Covid-19.
New Zealand has recorded just 25 Covid-19 deaths in a population of five million and its response has been singled out for praise by the World Health Organisation.
Aside from closed borders and a pandemic-induced recession, everyday life on the South Pacific nation is near-normal, as unrestricted crowds flock to sporting events and bars without fear of infection.
The pandemic upended the election, which was initially poised as a cliffhanger, with some criticising Ms Ardern's policy shortcomings while others praised her leadership after last year's Christchurch mosques terrorist attack in which 51 people died.
The students cheering in Wellington on Tuesday said the Covid-19 crisis had reinforced their support for her.
As Ms Ardern was being feted before adoring students, Judith Collins, leader of the main opposition National Party, was across town at a more modest meeting in a tiny suburban community centre attended by about 30 National Party faithful.
The combative 61-year-old, nicknamed "Crusher" for her hardline policies while serving as police minister under a former government, has performed well in debates but so far failed to generate campaign momentum.
She took over in July as the National Party's fourth leader since the last election, but is polling at 31 per cent, 16 points down on the conservative party's support when it last won an election in 2014.
Ms Collins has attacked border failures that likely led to a second wave of infections in Auckland in August and argues that the National Party is best placed to steer New Zealand through its economic crisis.
However, the Auckland spike has now been eliminated and National's economic credibility was damaged when its proposed budget plan proved to be out by at least NZ$4 billion (S$3.6 billion).
"I never give up, I'm a fighter, always keep going and I'm utterly positive for our country, I've got a vision to sell," Ms Collins said.
About 3.4 million people are registered to vote in the election, which was originally set for Sept 19 but delayed by the Auckland outbreak.
Labour currently holds power in coalition with the Greens and the New Zealand First party, led by Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who will struggle to remain in parliament.
However, polls suggest that Labour has a chance of winning office with an outright majority, a situation unprecedented since New Zealand adopted a German-style mixed-member proportional electoral system in 1996.
Even if Ms Ardern falls short, support from the Greens would likely get her over the line. AFP