New Zealanders are exhausted. Their pocketbooks are threadbare, the dog years of the pandemic have dragged on, and there is a strong sense that the country has never been further off track.
And so, when they head to the polls on Saturday, polls show, most will vote to punish the governing center-left Labour Party, which under Jacinda Ardern won a historic majority just three years ago.
“There’s a real vibe around of tiredness, frustration,” said Bernard Hickey, an economic commentator. When New Zealanders last went to the polls, they were celebrating their coronavirus wins. From 2021, he said, “it was all downhill.”
The opposition center-right National Party is therefore expected to form the next government with some smaller parties, despite what critics describe as a lack of vision for many of the country’s more vexatious issues.
Still, New Zealand’s proportional voting system could deliver last-minute twists, and New Zealand First, a small and populist party known for opposing immigration and supporting retirees, may once again become kingmaker, as it did in 2017.
Here’s how the campaign has played out, and what to watch for in Saturday’s results.
Who are the main candidates?
The incumbent leader is Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who took over from Ms. Ardern early this year and who has spent the penultimate week of the campaign stuck in a hotel room with Covid. Their Labour Party has been in power since 2017.
Ms. Ardern’s legacy hangs heavy over New Zealand, where many now ignore her world-leading pandemic response, Mr. Hickey said.
“She was a prime minister, who, however you look at it, managed a crisis fairly well,” he said. “And now she’s one of the most reviled politicians in the country, and she can’t walk down the street without protection.”
Ms. Ardern, who is pursuing a fellowship at Harvard University, has mostly stayed out of the race. But the “transformational change” that she campaigned on in 2017 has failed to materialize, and many New Zealanders blame her and her party for the difficulties they face, such as inflation or higher mortgage payments.
The main challenger is the National Party’s Christopher Luxon, a former chief executive of Air New Zealand, the country’s national airline, who was elected to Parliament for the first time in 2020.
Though Mr. Luxon leads Mr. Hipkins as potential voters’ preferred prime minister, he has mostly failed to energize voters, who see him as bland or corporate.
“People are saying that they feel there’s not much difference between the two Chrises,” said Grant Duncan, an independent political scientist and commentator.
What are pollsters predicting?
With voters scurrying to smaller parties, the National Party was expected to garner 34 percent of the vote, according to a Guardian Essential poll released this week, to Labour’s 30 percent.
Mr. Luxon is likely to lead the next government with support from Act, a right-wing libertarian party, and from New Zealand First, which helped catapult Ms. Ardern into the prime minister’s office in 2017.
There is a very slim chance of a Labour-led coalition government with Te Pati Maori, the country’s Indigenous rights party, and the Green Party. (Mr. Hipkins has said he will not work with New Zealand First.)
What are New Zealanders voting on?
Cost-of-living issues, as in many other comparable economies, dominate at the polls.
“It may or may not be the government’s fault,” said Ben Thomas, a former press secretary for the National Party, “but it’s the government’s problem.”
To battle inflation, New Zealand’s independent central bank has raised rates to a 15-year high of 5.5 percent. That has inflicted considerable pain on homeowners, most of whom are subject to floating mortgage rates. New home loans command rates of at least 7 percent, more than three times what they were in 2020, and many expect rates to go even higher.
Inflation remains high, even as it slowed to 6 percent in July compared with 6.7 percent in the same month a year earlier, according to the most recent government data. Food prices jumped 12.3 percent over the same period.
The proposed solutions from both major parties — like the tax and benefit cuts from the National Party, or the targeted subsidies and financial support from Labour — are unlikely to provide widespread relief, analysts say.
“The electoral numbers will fall on what is basically two estranged parents doing a bidding war over pocket money,” Mr. Thomas said.
A spate of unusual violent crime and “ram raids” — when a vehicle is driven into the windows of a store so it can be robbed — has haunted voters. The National Party has sought to seize the issue, promising to reintroduce the youth boot camps that the country has previously tried and abandoned.
Race has also emerged as an issue. New Zealand has longstanding arrangements with Maori, its Indigenous people, many of which are governed by an 1840 treaty. But some New Zealanders say these go too far. Act, the libertarian party run by David Seymour, has promised a referendum on “co-governance,” the practice of including Maori in policy decisions — a vow that has prompted widespread allegations from the left of racism. Act rejects those claims, saying it just wants equal rights for all citizens.
What comes next?
New Zealand’s other economic problems — which include an aging population, a crumbling health service, inadequate infrastructure and an economy reliant on dairy and other food exports that is set to be tested by extreme weather events — have defied the efforts of successive governments, said Craig Renney, an economist for the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions.
“We still have an economy which, structurally, is a commodity-exporting, low-wage economy,” Mr. Renney said, “supported by a giant housing market where we sell houses to each other.”
There is a particular antipathy toward public spending to solve those problems, even as the liabilities of not acting continue to climb, he added. “We have a national debt that is the envy of every developed country in the world,” he said, “yet we have this insistence that there is a debt crisis just around the corner.”
Despite these challenges, New Zealand’s trajectory was largely positive, said Shamubeel Eaqub, a New Zealand-based economist. “I’m optimistic about New Zealand,” he said. “I’m not optimistic about our politics.”
And while New Zealanders may approach Saturday’s vote with a sense of irritability, after an election campaign that has been characterized by mudslinging and small-target campaigning, there have been few allegations of the misinformation or antidemocratic behaviors that have bedeviled elections elsewhere in the world.
“In New Zealand, we don’t stop and think, ‘If you look at all of the indicators and league tables around the world, we’re actually one of the best-governed countries on earth,’ ” said Dr. Duncan, the political scientist. “But if you actually tried to say it to most New Zealanders, they’ll ask you, ‘What are you on?’”