Women at the centre of New Zealand elections
Asia Pacific Focus

Women at the centre of New Zealand elections

As the country goes to polls next week, women, both as contestants and voters, are set to play a key role in the outcome.

Opinion polls suggest that incumbent prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour party is well in the lead in the country’s general elections scheduled to be held on October 17, with early voting taking place from October 3 onwards. Referendums on personal cannabis consumption and euthanasia will be held concurrently. Over 3.44 million registered voters (91.1% of the 3.77 million eligible adults) will elect 120 members into the House of Representatives. The outgoing government is a coalition between Labour, Green and NZ First parties.

Arden has been enjoying a surge in popularity at home and abroad for New Zealand’s success in containing the coronavirus; the country has recorded only 1866 cases and 25 deaths and was declared virus-free for the second time after it contained the latest outbreak in Auckland. She is also being praised for her sensitive handling of the Christchurch shootings and a fatal volcanic eruption. If her party nabs the 60 seats that it is projected to win, she’ll become the first leader a majority government since electoral reforms in 1990s.

This time around, the National party, which was the second-largest party in the previous elections, is also being led by a woman – Judith “Crusher” Collins. The country has the distinction of being the first in the world to grant women the right to vote more than a century ago. It is expected the women – who make up half of the population and exercise their voting rights more than men – will play a deciding role in the outcome. But there is criticism that not enough women-centric policies have announced by the parties in the running.

Kiwi women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic as they account for 90% of the jobs lost between April and June. The unemployment rate for men fell 3.6% that quarter while that of women rose 4.4%. Yet both the Labour and National parties have only spoken about reviving male-dominated industries like infrastructure, while service industries like teaching, healthcare, hospitality, when women tend to be mostly employed, don’t feature in the pandemic recovery plans. Meanwhile, more than 260 candidates are contesting these polls and an abuse-fighting bot has been rolled out to address the rampant harassment of women on social media platforms. Parity Bot, which was tried out in Canadian elections last year, sends out positive messages (like “Great women like you running to make NZ a better place”) for every abusive tweet against female candidates it encounters. Having analysed over 95,000 tweets, it found over 1,800 abusive ones directed mostly at Ardern and Collins.

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