New Zealand says virus will not stop September election

Wellington (AFP) –


New Zealand's Electoral Commission unveiled safety measures Tuesday designed to allow a national election to proceed as planned in September despite the coronavirus threat.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the September 19 election date in January, before the global scale of the contagion was apparent, and has repeatedly said she does not plan to move it.

With New Zealand set to end a seven-week lockdown in the coming days, the Electoral Commission said it had held discussions with health authorities about how to stage the vote safely.

"This year's election will be different because of COVID-19, a range of measures will be in place to help keep people safe," it said.

Chief electoral officer Alicia Wright said these included queue management, physical distancing, hand sanitisers alongside ballot boxes and protective gear for people staffing voting stations.

Advance voting and postal voting will be encouraged, particularly for the elderly and those with existing medical conditions.

The guidelines did not cover other election activities such as campaign launches, party rallies and door-to-door canvassing, all of which are likely to be significantly affected.

Ardern said she had only considered the election "in passing" as she deals with the COVID-19 crisis.

"The election feels -- in terms of days, weeks and months -- a lifetime away," she told reporters on Tuesday.

"As you'd imagine in the middle of a global pandemic, it's not something that I have yet turned my mind to."

Opinion polls taken earlier this year before the pandemic reached New Zealand showed Ardern's centre-left Labour Party trailing the conservative National Party slightly but on track for a narrow victory with the help of coalition partners.

Since then, the 39-year-old leader has won global praise for her decisive coronavirus response, which has seen the nation of five million record only 21 deaths.

No opinion polls have been officially released during New Zealand's lockdown but leaked research by Labour's pollster, UMR, last month had Ardern's party heading for a landslide, with 55 percent support to National's 29 percent.

It put Ardern's approval rating as preferred prime minister at 65 percent.

New Zealand will hold two referendums alongside the September 19 election on legalising cannabis and allowing euthanasia.