New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Saturday launched her re-election campaign promising a "laser-like" focus on boosting jobs and economic growth hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The charismatic 40-year-old leader is on track for a comfortable victory in the Sept. 19 election, according to opinion polls, having won global praise for her leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.
It has been 99 days since New Zealand had any domestic transmission of COVID-19, a rare achievement as the pandemic rages globally, and it has re-opened the economy after undergoing a complete shutdown to eradicate the coronavirus.
"When people ask, is this a COVID election, my answer is yes, it is," Ardern told her supporters gathered in Auckland for the launch of her Labour Party's re-election campaign.
In her first campaign speech, Ardern pledged a NZ$311 million ($205.32 million) scheme aimed at getting 40,000 Kiwis back in work, if her party wins the September 19 polls.
The funding will allow businesses a subsidy of on average NZ$7500, and up to NZ$22,000, to hire unemployed New Zealanders.
"The new Flexi-wage scheme is a key plank of our economic plan to support businesses to recover and to provide jobs to those who have lost work due to Covid," Ardern said.
New Zealand has been an envy of the world, having eliminated COVID-19 from its shores and successfully re-opening its economy when most of the world is still shuttered.
Recent data suggests unemployment due to COVID-19 was not as dire as expected, and business confidence had improved due to the government's hard and early response to the pandemic.
Introduced to the stage by her partner and fiancé Clark Gayford, Ardern spoke of her unexpected rise to power in 2017, and her handling of a series of tragedies -- a mass shooting at Christchurch mosques, the deadly White Island volcanic eruption and the coronavirus this year.
"If you had told me then that our launch in 2020 would be in the midst of a global pandemic with our borders closed “ I would have found that very hard to fathom," she said.
Ardern's stratospheric rise in 2017 to become New Zealand's youngest prime minister and third woman to hold the office has been dubbed "Jacinda-mania" by some.Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here.