WELLINGTON (AFP) – New Zealand’s centre-left opposition leader Jacinda Ardern was poised to become prime minister yesterday in a stunning rise to power, after maverick populist Winston Peters backed the charismatic 37-year-old to form a government.
Mr Peters’ decision, which came after the September 23 election ended deadlocked, gives her Labour party the numbers to take office with his New Zealand First and the Greens.
“It is an absolute honour and a privilege to have the ability as Labour party leader to form a government for all New Zealanders,” she told reporters, saying it was “an exciting day”.
Mr Peters, who has been offered the deputy prime ministership under the deal, told reporters he believed Ms Ardern offered change that could provide “capitalism with a human face”.
He added: “That’s why in the end we chose a coalition government of New Zealand First with the New Zealand Labour Party.”
The 72-year-old “kingmaker” was full of praise for Ms Ardern, who revived Labour’s fortunes when she became party leader just weeks out from the election.
“She exhibited extraordinary talent in the campaign itself from a very hopeless position,” he said.
Once the Greens formally approve the coalition, Ms Ardern will become the nation of 4.6 million’s third female prime minister and the second-youngest after Edward Stafford, who become leader in 1856.
Ms Ardern thanked Mr Peters for his support, saying it was “a critical step to forming a Labour-led progressive government”.
She campaigned on issues such as housing affordability and free tertiary education. Environmental action and improved healthcare were also constant themes.
The result was a bitter blow to outgoing conservative Prime Minister Bill English, who ran an unexpectedly strong campaign to claim 44.4 percent of the vote, far higher than Labour’s 36 percent.
He congratulated Ms Ardern and said he had not yet decided whether he would remain National party leader in opposition.
It is the first time since New Zealand adopted proportional voting in 1996 that the party which claimed the largest slice of the vote has failed to form a government.
Mr Peters said the talks went down to the wire, with new information arriving throughout yesterday, with him finally addressing a media conference at 7pm.
Mr Peters thrashed out policy positions over 12 days of negotiations and said he only made his decision 15 minutes before making it public.
He did not inform Mr English nor Ms Ardern before the announcement, saying voters deserved to know first.
Mr Peters refused to specify what concessions he received from Labour, while Ms Ardern said policy positions and ministerial portfolios would be revealed next week.