June 18, 2024

The National party’s Christopher Luxon is leading Labour’s Chris Hipkins in the race to become New Zealand’s next prime minister, but any victory could depend on the support of smaller right-wing and populist parties.

Less than a year after Jacinda Ardern, the darling of the international community, passed the leadership to Hipkins, New Zealand’s left-leaning Labour party is facing an election where many of its trademark policies – from green farming to Maori co-governance – could be rolled back if the centre-right Nationals take power on October 14 as the opinion polls suggest.

Four years since the devastating Christchurch Mosque attacks, which were carried out by an Australian white supremacist, there are also concerns about the tone of the campaigning.

“I think some of our politicians are certainly playing the race card in this election,” Hipkins said during a debate last month between the leaders of the two main parties.

Hipkins questioned Luxon’s willingness to work with the New Zealand First party, quoting a racist statement made by one of the party’s candidates.

The centre-right Nationals are leading in the polls but may need one or both of New Zealand First and the AMP party, another populist right wing party, to be able to form a government.

Responding to Hipkins’s reference to racist campaigning, Luxon told Hipkins he was willing to “make the call” to work with New Zealand First if it meant “stopping you, Te Pati Maori and the Greens coming to power”.

Labour’s current government is a coalition with the Green party, while Te Pati Maori is a smaller party representing New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori population who make up about 17 percent of the nation’s five million people.

Racist campaigning during the election has not been limited to speeches made to loyal followers. It has also spilt over into action, fuelling concern among the country’s Muslim and Maori leaders.

Hana Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke, Te Pati Maori’s youngest candidate, has experienced a “string of attacks”, including an intruder inside her home, according to the party.

Te Pati Maori President John Tamihere said it was “clear” that the attacks against Maipi-Clarke were “politically motivated as the perpetrator is a well-known advocate and campaigner for the National Party”, a claim the National Party has denied.

The situation prompted 30 Maori leaders to write an open letter two weeks before the election stating: “Racism, in any form, should have no place in our elections.”

Christchurch Mosque shooting recommendations shelved

Aliya Danzeisen, the national coordinator of the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand told Al Jazeera that recent attacks during the election “underscore” why recommendations from New Zealand’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch Mosque attacks “should have been implemented three years ago”.

Earlier this year, Hipkins shelved new hate speech laws – one of the commission’s recommendations – claiming cost of living pressures were more urgent.

Danzeisen said there has been a “significant lack of commitment” to implement recommendations that could protect “vulnerable communities from targeting and dehumanising speech” and that she says would make New Zealand “a safer nation”.

Fifty-one people were killed when a lone gunman attacked Muslim worshippers at the mosque in the largest city in New Zealand’s South Island in March 2019.

In its 800-page report, the commission found intelligence services had been distracted from investigating right-wing threats because of a focus on the “threat of Islamist extremist” activity.

New Zealander’s farmers face big changes

Agriculture, New Zealand’s biggest industry, is another key issue in Saturday’s elections.

Some farmers are concerned about the costs of implementing the world’s first “fart tax“, even as their farms are at risk from intensifying climate disasters. There are an estimated six million cows and 26 million sheep in the country.

In February, after Cyclone Gabrielle left many New Zealand farms underwater, with mudslides, flattened trees and animals in need of rescue, New Zealand’s government quickly announced tens of millions of dollars in emergency grants.

But in the lead-up to the election, some farmers have been vocal about the potential costs of Labour’s tax on methane emissions from livestock, which is set to be introduced in 2025.

Nicola Harvey, author of FARM: the making of a climate activist, told Al Jazeera that the Labour and National parties had been “pumping the brakes on agriculture regulations in order to get votes”.

Harvey’s cattle farm was among those hit by storms earlier this year – after she had published her book looking at the role farmers can play in addressing the climate crisis.

Clouds of fertiliser trail behind a white truck in a green field with scattered trees in the distance.
Some minor parties in New Zealand have proposed more regenerative farming practices, including banning the use of nitrogen fertilisers [File: William West/AFP]

Another “contentious debate” is the potential lifting of New Zealand’s long-standing ban on genetically modified crops, she said.

Harvey says some parties have changed their position on the ban because genetically modified crops could help build resilience to climate change, but she questions whether this makes sense as it concentrates “yet more power with the big agriculture companies”.

New Zealand in the world

While Ardern is travelling the world, and has a new position as a senior fellow at Harvard University in the United States, back in New Zealand her successor has struggled to maintain the comfortable lead that Ardern – whose popularity stretched well beyond New Zealand’s borders – enjoyed.

Compounding his problems, he fell sick with COVID-19 just two weeks before the election and had to take campaigning online.

A man with blond hair in a black suit with red tie stands in front of a red wall and speaks into a microphone on a podium
Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Chris Hipkins was diagnosed with COVID-19 in the middle of his first election after taking over from the popular Jacinda Ardern [File: David Rowland/Reuters]

While Ardern remains a popular presence at international meetings, back at home different parties have different views on how, and if, New Zealand should engage with the world, as well as with China and the United States.

One reason why Labour may not again get to form the government is because New Zealand First’s Winston Peters has ruled out working with the party again and may instead help the Nationals.

Peters previously served as foreign minister under a coalition government with Labour from 2005 to 2008 and again from 2017 to 2020. As foreign minister, he introduced the Pacific Reset policy in 2018, to improve New Zealand’s relations with its neighbouring countries at a time when China had begun increasing its presence in the region.

If Peters returns to the position of foreign minister he would potentially replace Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta, a daughter of Maori royalty.

By contrast the ACT, another potential coalition partner for the Nationals, wants to shut down New Zealand’s ministry for the advancement of Pacific People.

ACT is also more outspoken on geopolitical issues than many New Zealand parties.

Its leader David Seymour attended a pro-Hong Kong democracy protest in Auckland in 2019 – and the party wants to increase New Zealand’s historically low defence spending to 1.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) from less than 1 percent.

Maori homelands and co-governance

In recent years New Zealand – or Aotearoa as it is known in Maori language – has been making progress in reviving Maori culture and recognising Maori co-governance, more than 180 years after the British Crown and Maori leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi.

But both ACT and New Zealand First have run on platforms that push back against some of the perceived gains made by Maori people, even as the Indigenous population continues to experience systemic inequality.

“I call on Maori women to respond at this time in our history by attending at the polling booths in numbers never seen before,” Annette Sykes, a Rotorua activist and lawyer who has been active in efforts to revive Maori culture and self-governance, told Al Jazeera.

Voting is not compulsory in New Zealand, although more than 80 percent of enrolled voters voted in the last election in 2020 when Ardern won in a landslide.

Sykes said this year’s poll was an opportunity to “examine and to redefine the terms upon which we will live and work and care for our homelands as our ancestors did”.

By “voting in record numbers” said Sykes, Maori women could “reaffirm our power confirmed in the founding documents of the modern Aotearoa-New Zealand nation state”.

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