Even after New Zealand Socialist Jacinda Ardern won her prime minister seat through a sham election, she was received with warm greetings from President Joe Biden, who welcomed Prime Minister Ardern to the White House on Tuesday to discuss economic ties, gun control, and “space exploration”—but apparently not Ardern’s decision to use COVID-19 measures to delay the 2020 New Zealand election.
Discussions about possible delays in elections rocked several countries across the globe during that time, including in the United States, when then-President Donald Trump received stern condemnations from left-wingers for suggesting changing the date of the November 2020 federal election. Ardern did what Trump was talking about doing and received no criticism. New Zealand—though the election date change was later discovered to be in opposition to the wishes of the nation's Electoral Commission and significantly hindered opposition parties' election campaigns—has always ranked as one of the world's most free states. Ardern made use of her landslide victory in 2020 to implement more severe COVID restrictions and lockdowns, which a New Zealand court deemed illegal in April.
Biden's visit with Ardern on Tuesday morning was the first of an array of bizarre exchanges with the president, including discussions with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and the South Korean superstar boy band BTS. This was the first trip by a New Zealand leader to the White House since 2014.
Other countries, where the heads of government often disregard the role of an electoral commission and the capacity of rival parties to compete in fair and democratic elections, such as the Maduro government in Venezuela and Vladimir Putin's in Russia, for instance, have been criticized by the Biden Administration. However, the White House warmly welcomed Ardern.
“The two Leaders will discuss strengthening cooperation to support the Pacific Islands region, and our work together on a range of issues,” the White House announced last week, “including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, addressing the climate crisis, and countering terrorism and radicalization to violence both off and online.”
New Zealand outlets also reported that Ardern will have a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris in order to talk about “gun control and space exploration.”
Biden has promised to make a speech to Congress regarding the constitutional right to bear guns in the United States during his public meeting with Ardern, who is a defender of restrictions on guns, in alliance with the American Left; her policies significantly restrict gun ownership. In a speech on the campus of Harvard University last week, she spoke about limiting gun ownership as a means to protect the democratic process. “We knew we needed significant gun reform, and so that is what we did,” Ardern said. “But we also knew that if we wanted genuine solutions to the issue of violent extremism online, it would take the government, civil society, and the tech companies themselves to change the landscape. For many years, it seems that we've been assuming that the strength of our democracy is determined by its duration. It was as if your democracy was similar to a marriage. The longer you'd been there the more likely to last. However, that's taking so much for…granted.”
The media coverage of her ongoing trip to America has generally neglected her administration’s fragility in New Zealand's democratic system following Ardern's opting to change the date of the 2020 elections and imposing limitations on freedom of association. Ardern was the former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. She secured a stunning “win” for her hard-left Labour Party in October 2020 following the implementation of a stringent lockdown policy that restricted gatherings at large and hindered political campaigns. The vote was originally planned for September 19 but was held on October 17. Ardern did not encounter any objections from opposition parties, with a majority of them hailing the decision. New Zealand Electoral Commission documents later revealed that they had advised Ardern that the delay could be arranged only by allowing a longer notice, which she did not heed. The Commission demanded that Ardern consider November 21 as an alternate day.
“Proceeding earlier than this does not give it sufficient time to re-standup advance and election day voting services,” the Commission's report stated in a letter to the prime minister, according to the nation's news site RNZ. “The impact will depend on the size and number of regions at higher alert levels, and the numbers in isolation or quarantine.”
“It also noted that at a higher alert level physical distancing would likely apply, meaning that voters would also experience longer wait times and that face-to-face engagement with voters, including for enrolment purposes, would also be significantly curtailed,” RNZ stated. “There was also concern that some people may be less willing to go to a voting place or even use a post box—decreasing voter turnout.”
Other issues with which the Commission was confronted due to the delay included the introduction of new voter minors who turned 18 between September 19 and October 17 and the difficulties of stopping fraud at the ballot box. Following the election, the New Zealand Herald reported that officials had discovered at least two instances of fraud. They had knowledge of one of them, as they were able to identify the perpetrator, who was a social-media user known by the name “Tswizzle” and had bragged about having cast multiple ballots on the internet. “There's boxes for several electorates in each booth. I just walked down the road to cast another ballot at a different booth,” Tswizzle wrote on Twitter. “I voted yesterday and because our system is so slack and requires no ID I'm voting every day this week and twice on Saturday.”
Ardern had told voters the exact opposite of the warnings of the Electoral Commission when announcing the date change. She claimed that a “short delay” would help the Electoral Commission better prepare. “Moving the date by four weeks also gives all parties a fair shot to campaign and delivers New Zealanders certainty without unnecessarily long delays,” she declared.
In the end, the delay in the election and the worsening pandemic, as well as the debate about the issue, with Ardern garnering the most popular support, were the most important aspects of the election and made normal campaigns difficult.
Analysts from the political world observed that in the midst of the debate, Ardern was experiencing an increasing level of discontent due to her inability to implement her expansive policies to reduce the burden of poverty and implement costly social programs. But some voters, concerned about the outbreak of the coronavirus, had decided to put aside these concerns.
“It seemed like she was set to become a one-term prime minister. Then, [the] Chinese coronavirus changed the world,” political analyst Josh Van Veen stated to The Washington Post at the time.
The post-delay reality meant campaigns had to compete to find a month of funding and plans for events and marketing. “Parties are not required to publicly disclose their full financial position in New Zealand but several have asked supporters for cash to help them pay for staff and advertising over the new campaign period,” the newspaper Stuff reported in August. “National's Chair of the campaign Gerry Brownlee sent out an email on Monday night, asking supporters to contribute to pay for ‘four additional weeks’ of targeted ads, telephone calls, pamphlets, direct mail as well as billboards.”
A long-time ex-Labour Party official told Stuff, “there would be quite a bit of money spent on simply hiring people to work another four weeks, rebooking various advertising spots, and possibly more travel and accommodation for the campaign.”
“A lot of the advertising done so far will be essentially wasted, as parties will have phased their advertising thinking towards a September 19 date,” the former Labour Party chief of staff, Neale Jones, said.
The change in the election schedule came after Ardern's coronavirus regulations had caused it to be difficult for polling companies to contact voters, Reuters stated in its report in August 2020, when it mistakenly believed Ardern would not alter the date of the election. “Forced to cancel campaign events due to restrictions on movement and crowds due to the health scare, the opposition has accused Ardern of using the pandemic to shore up support as she appears on television nearly every day to reassure New Zealanders, while their own leaders struggle to draw audiences,” Reuters noted at the time.
In a lengthy post-mortem of the shaky National Party campaign, Stuff ended up blaming the party's incompetence as the reason for its loss—however, not without acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances Ardern created. “The campaign was brutal. Labour was launched on the 7th of August and was greeted by a huge celebration in the Auckland Town Hall. The next day, the race was put to a halt when a third outbreak of the Chinese coronavirus was detected as well. The city had been shut in a state of emergency,” Stuff relayed. “Traditional campaigns were not possible to be conducted and National could not postpone its race that was scheduled for the next weekend. The outbreak gave Ardern an opportunity to make her case public against that her opponents could not be a threat.”
Freedom House described the 2020 New Zealand election as “well-administered and credible” in its 2021 global human rights report.