Polls close as New Zealand awaits result of closely fought election
Polls have closed in New Zealand's national elections amid what looks like a close race between the conservative prime minister and his liberal challenger.
Early results suggest incumbent Bill English's National Party is a little ahead of Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party.
Under New Zealand's proportional voting system, large parties typically have to form alliances with smaller parties in order to govern.
That means there is a chance there will be no clear winner on election night, and parties may bargain over the coming days or weeks to form a coalition.
Ms Ardern, 37, has enjoyed a remarkable surge in popularity since taking over as opposition leader last month.
Mr English, 55, has highlighted his experience and promised tax cuts.
With a little over one-third of the vote counted, the National Party was winning 46% of the vote and the Labour Party 36%. The New Zealand First Party had 7% and the Green Party 6%.
Ms Ardern has enjoyed a remarkable surge in popularity since taking over and was greeted like a rock star at large rallies during the campaign.
Mr English ran a more low-key campaign, highlighting his experience and the economic growth the country has enjoyed over recent years.
Opinion polls indicate there was a swing back to him in the waning days of the campaign after Ms Ardern had the early momentum.
Voting ended at 7pm local time on Saturday. Figures released by election authorities showed that a record 1.2 million people chose to cast their votes before election day.
That equates to about half of all the votes that were likely to be cast in the nation of just under five million people.
Election authorities made it easier for people to cast early votes, which they were able to do at certain polling stations up to two weeks before the election.
It also means that New Zealanders might find out the results more quickly, because early votes were counted before the polls closed.
On his campaign bus this week, Mr English said Ms Ardern had taken the nation by surprise.
"It tests your faith in your product and your faith in your approach," he said.
Mr English said the polls had been volatile and small changes could have a big effect on the outcome.
"People have been changing their views very quickly, and I think the polls have reflected that," he said. "You've really taken what normally takes two to three years in a political cycle and telescoped it into six weeks."
Ms Ardern laughed when asked if she ever expected to do as well as she has so far.
"You know what, I really didn't have any time to set any expectations," she said. "It was just hit the ground running, and run a campaign that was good enough to win."
At stake for both candidates is how to capitalise on New Zealand's growing economy.
Mr English said people should stay the course after his government set the country on a path toward increasing prosperity.
Ms Ardern said she wants to build thousands of affordable homes to combat runaway house prices, spend more money on health care and education, and clean up polluted waterways.
Mr English said he thinks the televised debates between the two candidates helped swing the momentum his way, as people focused more on the issues and how policy changes would affect them.
But his opponent accused him of scaremongering over her plans for taxes and the economy.
"Certainly it's been somewhat frustrating dealing with their negative campaign," Ms Ardern said. "But, from what I've seen, this is an election that's going to come down to turnout."
Ardern is hoping that if younger voters turn out in big numbers, it could help swing the election her way.