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UPDATE 3-Ardern's party seizes big lead in New Zealand election initial returns

17 Oct 2020 / 14:35 H.

    (Recasts with initial results)

    By Praveen Menon

    WELLINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party held a big early lead in New Zealand's general election on Saturday, initial tallies showed after a campaign dominated by her handling of COVID-19.

    Labour Party leader Ardern, 40, and National Party chief Collins, 61, faced off in the election to form the country's 53rd parliament, a referendum on Ardern's three-year term.

    Labour had 50.3% of the votes, to 25.9% for the opposition National Party with 7% of ballots tallied, according to the Electoral Commission. Of Labour's current coalition partners, the nationalist New Zealand First Party had 2.2% and the Green Party 8.7%.

    Labour had led by wide margins in opinion polls before the vote.

    The surveys initially had suggested Ardern was on track to be able to form a Labour-only government, the first outright majority government since New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system in 1996. But more recent polls have indicated she may need the continued support of the minor Green Party.

    The election was delayed by a month after new COVID-19 infections in Auckland, that led to a second lockdown in the country's largest city.

    New Zealand, with a population of 5 million, currently has no community cases of COVID-19 and is among only a few nations where people are not required to wear masks or follow social distancing.

    Labour is seeking a second term on the back of Ardern's success in containing COVID-19, while Collins argues she is best placed tackle the post-pandemic financial challenges.

    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.

    (Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by William Mallard and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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