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Elections: Why New Zealand's left is making gains and Germany's is failing

New Zealand and Germany go to the polls this weekend. Chancellor Angela Merkel looks set to trump Social Democrat Martin Schulz. His South Pacific counterpart Jacinda Ardern could oust Prime Minister Bill English.

Two conservative-led governments, one in Germany and one in New Zealand, neared a final week of campaigning on Saturday. But the two center-left challengers faced highly divergent election prospects after a decade of market gains and social hardships in both OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.

New Zealand's election takes place Saturday, September 23, and Germany's on Sunday. Taking into account time zones, they take place about 34 hours apart.

Martin Schulz's Social Democrats (SPD), which picked him as its 100-percent hopeful last January, trail Angela Merkel's conservatives by a moribund 17 percent. This has allowed a likely fourth-term Merkel to ponder further coalition partners beyond Schulz's SPD such as the FDP liberals and the Greens.

Bounce-back from zero in just seven weeks

Jacinda Ardern, 37, who in July took over as New Zealand's key opposition figure from union leader Andrew Little, has since lofted Labour from the mid-20-percent range in voter samplings to be at least level with Bill English's ruling National party, which has run New Zealand since 2008.

English, who replaced John Key as premier last December, had until July seemed destined to lead National to re-election, given his prowess as former finance minister.

Then came the "Ardern effect," prompting superlatives such as "charismatic" and "a breath of fresh air" from Australia's Sydney Morning Herald across the Tasman Sea, where many expatriate New Zealanders live.

Closeup of New Zealand Labour candidate Jacinda Ardern (Getty Images/F. Goodall)

Opposition Labour's chances hinge on Ardern-led surge

A survey by Auckland's New Zealand Herald (NZH) - using data collated since 1999 - on Saturday foresaw Ardern's Labour edging ahead to 43 percent or 55 seats in the next parliament compared to English's National on 40 percent or 51 seats.

The Wellington chamber has 120 seats, suggesting that whoever wins under New Zealand's "mixed member" proportional representation system - similar to Germany's – will depend on minority coalition partners.

'Too close to call'

The NZH survey put the anti-immigrant New Zealand First party led by veteran populist Winston Peters on 7.8 percent and the opposition Green Party on 5.2 percent – for the Greens, a slump from 14 percent before Ardern took over Labour.

NZ First leader Winston Peters speaks to media following the Economic Development Agencies of New Zealand Conference at Rydges Hotel on August 31, (Getty Images/H. Hopkins)

Populist and potential coalition-maker Winston Peters is polling at 7.8 percent

Another survey, the Roy Morgan Poll from Friday, put Labour on 39.5 percent, National on 40 percent, the Green Party on 9 percent and New Zealand First on 6 percent.

Public Radio New Zealand radio (RNZ) on Saturday had National and Labour neck-in-neck, each above 41 percent. Trailing below the parliamentary entry threshold was the Maori Party on just 1.3 percent.

"It is too close to call between the two major parties," wrote veteran political analyst Colin James, long associated with the National Business Review newspaper on RNZ's website.

Although 19,000 kilometers (11,800 miles) apart and vastly different in population size – New Zealand 4.7 million and Germany 82 million – societal strains have become common threads in both election campaigns.

Migration, river pollution

Germany, still preoccupied with migration debates, fueled by 2015 refugee arrivals, can cite economic recovery but offset by sociologists' warnings of rich-versus-poor rifts, alarm over aged-care and unequal childhood education and car-driven ambivalence overreaching climate change goals.

New Zealand parties have also hotly debated inadequacies in housing, public transport, river pollution, immigration, child poverty and health, including Ardern's emphasis on better services for mental health, such as avoidance of youth suicide.

National has promised tax cuts. Labour has floated taxation on capital gains and on commercial water usage to stem farm pollutants from flowing into New Zealand's once pristine rivers.

English, in turn, has reached out to the farming community, historically a rural mainstay of votes for National.

Green Party leader James Shaw told RNZ "cleaning up our rivers" was a key issue, alongside endemic poverty and climate change, "that successive governments haven't grappled with successfully."

Royal touch

Traveling through electorates, first with Ardern and then English, NZH writer Steve Braunias has described Labour's "Jacinda effect" on voters as being almost regal and English's demeanor as likable but "wispy" and "vague."

"The beatific leader of the Labour Party made a fine speech about the need to provide warm homes. 'Insulation,' she said, 'will improve the health of New Zealanders!' wrote Braunias.

He then described standing-room-only encounters with voters, including students, as Ardern visited her early childhood home, Hamilton, an agricultural hub city south of Auckland.

English 'desperate'

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English (Getty Images/K. Schwoerer)

English's campaign team is becoming 'desperate' in the face of the Labour resurgence

The New Zealand newspaper chain, known by its down-to-earth title Stuff, last Monday even claimed that English's campaign was "getting desperate."

"English is reaching deep to pull out sweeteners that even a few weeks ago National would have held its nose at – sweeteners like a boost for first home buyers grants," wrote Stuff analyst Tracy Watson.

Unhelpful for English and National amid debate about New Zealand's wealth and poverty were media disclosures last week that former premier Key had sold his Auckland home for NZ$20 million (€12.2 million, $14.5 million).

Nearly one in three New Zealand children live in poverty, reported Amnesty International.

Role model at UNDP?

Arden rallying support on Auckland University's campus (Getty Images/P. Walter)

The "Ardern effect" has been felt by university students

Visiting the southern city of Dunedin on Friday, Ardern urged university students to stage a voter "youthquake,"an allusion to New Zealand's earthquake-prone geology.

And, in New Plymouth on the western North Island on Saturday, the rising political star recalled casting her first-ever vote in 1999 for Labour's Helen Clark.

Clark became prime minister – until 2008, when replaced by National's Key – and went on to head the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Last April, Clark was succeeded by Germany's Achim Steiner.

ipj/aw (dpa, Reuters, KNA)

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