Two women vie to lead New Zealand as polls open in general election

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New Zealanders went to the polls on Saturday in a general election that could see Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern strengthen her left-of-centre hold on government or a challenge from conservatives led by Judith Collins.

Labour Party leader Ardern, 40, and National Party chief Collins, 61, are the faces of the election to form the country’s 53rd parliament, a pandemic-focused referendum on Ardern’s three-year term.

Doors to the polling booths opened at 9 a.m. (2000 GMT on Friday), though a record number of voters had already cast their ballots in advance.

Restrictions are in place on what news media can report about the race until polls close at 7 p.m. (0600 GMT), after which the Electoral Commission is expected to begin releasing preliminary results.

More than 1.7 million ballots had already been cast as of Friday, accounting for almost half of the about 3.5 million New Zealanders on the electoral rolls.

Special votes, including ballots from New Zealanders overseas and those who vote outside their home constituencies, will only be released on Nov. 6.

New Zealanders are also voting on referendums to legalise euthanasia and recreational marijuana. The latter vote could make New Zealand only the third country in the world to allow the adult use and sale cannabis nationwide, after Uruguay and Canada.

Results of the referendums be announced on Oct. 30.

New Zealand switched to a mixed member proportional system in 1996 in which a party or coalition needs 61 of Parliament’s 120 seats – usually about 48% of the vote – to form a government.

This means minor parties often play an influential role in determining which major party governs.

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