WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Three weeks ago, New Zealand’s conservative National Party appeared to be cruising to a fourth straight election victory. Opinion polls showed the party had strong support and the opposition was struggling to inspire people ahead of September’s general election.
But much has changed since then due to the rise of opposition leader Jacinda Ardern, and the latest polls indicate the election will be closely contested. The latest shift came Monday, when United Future leader Peter Dunne resigned, the third party leader to quit in as many weeks.
His small party supported the government and his move came as a blow to Prime Minister Bill English and his National Party.
Dunne said there’s a mood for change in the district where he has served as a lawmaker for 33 years, something that’s become apparent to him only in recent weeks.
“In New Zealand all of us, me included, took the view that after Brexit, after Trump, this wouldn’t happen here,” Dunne said. “But actually, it’s the same mood.”
Although Dunne was United Future’s only lawmaker, his party was one of several minor parties that helped the government reach a ruling majority.
English is campaigning on his party’s economic success, pointing to solid GDP growth, strong employment numbers and budget surpluses. His party had turned his somewhat dull image into a positive, portraying him as steady and dependable.
He told reporters that Dunne’s exit highlighted that the election was becoming a drag race between the two main parties, with the minor parties falling away.
The campaign was transformed three weeks ago when opposition leader Andrew Little quit following dismal polling, allowing Ardern to step into the position. The 37-year-old’s promise to run a progressive agenda with an optimistic outlook resonated with some voters. Opinion polls show a sharp rise in popularity for her Labour Party.
A week after her appointment, Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei resigned, after admitting she committed welfare fraud as a struggling young mother more than 20 years ago. She made the admission as part of an effort to energize debate about the difficulties of living on welfare.
But the move appeared to backfire, with the Green Party dropping in opinion polls. Part of that may have been due to liberal voters switching to the Labour Party.
Dunne struck a distinctive figure in Parliament with his favoured bow ties and coif of white hair. He cast himself as a moderate who was willing to work with parties from either side of the aisle.
His party won eight seats in the 2002 election, but its fortunes waned after that. Dunne continued to hold senior roles in the government and is minister of internal affairs.
He said he thought Ardern was a “perfectly pleasant and capable person” but that English had the experience, judgment and depth to lead the country.