WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Chris Hipkins, who played a significant role in New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to replace Jacinda Ardern as prime minister after emerging on Saturday as the sole candidate to lead the ruling Labor Party. .
Hipkins, 44, is expected to be confirmed as leader at a meeting of 64 Labor MPs on Sunday, succeeding Ardern, who made a surprise announcement on Thursday that she was “no longer in the tank” to lead the country and would step down.
“I think we’re an incredibly strong team,” Hipkins said at a news conference after the party announced he was the sole candidate.
“We went through this process with unity and will continue to do so. I feel really fortunate to be working with such an amazing group of people who have a real commitment to serving the people of New Zealand.”
Known as “Sheppy”, Hipkins has been proficient in dealing with COVID-19 and has been Ardern’s problem-solver when other government ministers were struggling.
He will not be drawn into his policy plans. Ardern’s proposed reshuffle will go ahead, but he has said he intends to keep Grant Robertson as finance minister.
Hipkins said he spoke to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who tweeted that the two had a “warm discussion”.
First elected to Parliament for Labor in 2008, Hipkins has become a household name spearheading the government’s response to the pandemic. He was appointed Minister of Health in July 2020 before becoming Minister of Coronavirus Response at the end of the year.
He is now Minister of Police, Education and Public Service, as well as Speaker of Parliament.
A surprise Horizon Research poll obtained by local media organization Stuff on Friday found Hipkins was the likely most popular candidate among voters, with support from 26% of those polled.
While Ardern was popular early in her five-year tenure, her ratings have fallen due to a backlash to strict COVID restrictions, rising costs of living and mortgage rates, and concerns about crime.
Rural voters, who switched to Labor in 2020 after Ardern’s early success against COVID, have soured the party, angered by the government’s growing environmental and other regulations.
New Zealander Eva Murphy said in Auckland that Hepkins had a big challenge ahead.
“It won’t fill the place that Jacinda has and it will be interesting to see what Labor comes up with in terms of campaigning over the next year and we look forward to seeing what happens,” she said.
Hipkins’ confirmation by Labor lawmakers on Sunday afternoon is expected to be a formality. Ardern would then tender her resignation to the Governor-General of New Zealand before Hopkins was appointed.
If confirmed, Hipkins would be prime minister until the party’s term expires.
There will be a general election on Oct. 14, and some opinion polls show Labor trailing the opposition New Zealand National Party.
A Korea Federation of Taxpayers poll released Friday, based on data from before Ardern’s resignation announcement, showed Labor’s approval ratings dropping to 31.7%, behind the Nationals’ 37.2%.
The Green Party of New Zealand, a traditional partner of the Labor Party, said in a statement that it looked forward to working with Hipkins.
Green Party leader James Shaw said “Chris will make an excellent Prime Minister and we look forward to continuing our work together, for the rest of this term and beyond”.
Lucy Kramer reports. Additional reporting by Jill Gralow in Auckland. Editing by Deba Babington, Rosalba O’Brien and William Mallard
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