August 31, 2017 / 6:43 AM / 2 years ago

New Zealand heads for topsy-turvy election, poll shows, with housing, immigration in focus

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - A “bombshell” poll on Thursday showed New Zealand’s Labour Party will pose a significant threat to the ruling National party at September’s election, as its leaders clashed in a debate focussed on housing, the economy and immigration.

New Zealand's new opposition Labour party leader, Jacinda Ardern, speaks during an event held ahead of the national election at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ross Setford

Support for the opposition Labour party jumped to its highest since 2006, overtaking that of the National party, a poll commissioned by 1 News showed, threatening National’s decade-long hold in government at the Sept. 23 election.

National or Labour would still need to strike a deal with smaller parties to form a government in New Zealand’s German-style proportional voting system.

Prime Minister Bill English, a former finance minister, faces a highly contested race against Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, whose charisma and rising popularity have prompted domestic media to coin the term “Jacindamania”.

Ardern, who has almost single-handedly reignited the chances of the Labour party since taking over as leader four weeks ago, said she wasn’t taking anything for granted.

“I’m certainly not going to decide that it’s somehow a done deal right now,” Ardern said.

National, just weeks ago considered the favourite to form a government, fell three points to 41 percent, its lowest result since 2005.

“This is a bombshell,” said Bryce Edwards, political analyst at Wellington-based Critical Politics. “It does mean that this campaign has turned on its head.”

The result pushed the New Zealand currency to a three-month low of $0.7148 as the election looked increasingly uncertain.

It was in keeping with recent unexpected political developments that saw Donald Trump become U.S. president, Britain’s Conservative Party lose a majority in parliament and Emmanuel Macron become the youngest French leader since Napoleon.

English took jabs at Ardern’s “confusing” and “vague” policies, while Ardern criticized National for failing to resolve the housing crisis after nine years in government.

New Zealand has been among the fastest growing economies in the developed world, but is suffering from a skilled labour shortage and struggling to build enough houses to meet demand from a growing population buoyed by record migration.

Arden said she wanted to “make sure my generation can get into housing”, while English questioned how she would achieve that if she stopped migrants coming in to build homes. Labour plans to cut immigration by up to 30,000 a year from annual record levels of 70,000 currently.

Ardern said her first call would still be with the Green party, with which it has an agreement to work together, but has not ruled out a coalition with the nationalist New Zealand First Party led by the maverick Winston Peters.

The Greens, who recently struggled with a benefits scandal that saw their co-leader resign, edged up one point to 5 percent. The two parties would probably still need New Zealand First, which slipped two points to 8 percent, to form a government.

Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Ana Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie

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