Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was on track to achieve an unprecedented outright majority in New Zealand's general election Saturday, leveraging success battling Covid-19 to gain a second term and the chance to implement her reform agenda.
With one third of the vote counted, Ardern's centre-left Labour Party was on 50.6 percent and forecast to take around 66 seats in the 120-member parliament.
No leader has achieved an outright majority since New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system in 1996, leading to a succession of multi-party governments.
While the figures are early, they exceed pre-election opinion polls and would represent Labour's strongest showing since 1946 if they remain consistent.
The opposition National Party was on 25.7 percent, or 33 seats, and appears headed for its worst result in nearly 20 years.
Labour president Claire Szabo attributed the performance to the charismatic Ardern, who sparked a wave of support dubbed "Jacinda-mania" when she took over the party in 2017 as it was languishing at 24 percent in the polls.
"This is a huge night for us, we're sitting on the edge of our seats," she told TVNZ.
"There's no doubt the strong, great leadership we've had from Jacinda Ardern has been a massive factor in all this."
Ardern has dubbed the vote "the Covid election" and campaigned on her government's success in eliminating community transmission of the virus, which has caused just 25 deaths in a population of five million.
The pandemic is just one of a string of crises that showed Ardern's leadership qualities during a torrid first term, even as critics lashed her for failing to deliver on key pledges such as protecting the environment and easing child poverty.
She displayed both empathy and decisive action on gun control after a white supremacist gunman killed 51 Muslim worshippers in the March 2019 Christchurch mosques attack.
Ardern again found herself comforting a shocked nation when a volcanic eruption at White Island, also known as Whakaari, killed 21 people and left dozens more with horrific burns.
"No matter what crisis is thrown my way, you will always be assured I will give my everything to this job, even if that means a huge sacrifice," she said this week.
- 'Extraordinary win' -
Ardern has also faced criticism during her first term for failing to deliver on some key promises such as improving housing affordability and countering child poverty.
Greens co-leader Marama Davidson, who was in coalition with Labour during the first term,, said the prime minister now had a mandate to implement change.
"I want to congratulate Jacinda Ardern and her team on an extraordinary win," she said.
"The results show how much New Zealanders want a strong, truly progressive government."
Judith Collins, the combative leader of the centre-right National Party, has focused on the spectre of the Greens forcing Ardern to adopt a wealth tax aimed at the aspirational middle class.
But her attacks failed to find traction and the party looks set to fall well short of the 44.5 percent it recorded at the last election in 2017.
The conservative leader, known as "Crusher" for her hardline policies when police minister in a previous government, has vowed to stay on as leader regardless of the result.
About 3.5 million people are registered to vote, with 1.9 million, or well over half, casting their ballots early -- a much higher figure than previous elections.
The vote was originally set for September 19 but was delayed by a virus outbreak in Auckland that has now been contained.
Collins, who took over the National Party in July after a period of turmoil when the party had three leaders in three months, said the false start had cost her campaign momentum.
Voters also cast ballots in two referendums, one on legalising recreational cannabis and the other on legalising euthanasia, although the results of those votes will not be known until October 30.