By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Early voting began in New Zealand on Friday with Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern seen securing a second term in office on the back of her success in handling the coronavirus pandemic and other crises.
Voters can head to the polls with about 450 advance polling stations opened across the country in the lead-up to election day on Oct. 17.
The election commission said advance voting has become steadily more popular. It accounted for 47% of all votes in 2017 and could reach as much as 60% this time round.
In a Facebook message, Ardern said she voted early on Saturday.
"Voting opens today! We got in nice and early, you should too! No lines, lots of space, quick and easy," Ardern said.
A photo posted on her Facebook page shows Ardern and her partner, Clarke Gayford, walking into a polling place.
New Zealanders are also voting on two other issues - legalising recreational cannabis and euthanasia - topics that have split opinions in the country.
Ardern’s Labour Party, governing in a coalition with the Greens and the nationalist New Zealand First party, faces the conservative National Party in what has been a pandemic-dominated campaign.
Ardern’s rise to become New Zealand’s most popular prime minister, buoyed by her response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has left the country largely unscathed, has boosted her prospects in the election.
The 40-year-old also won support at home and global admiration for her response to last year's attack by a white supremacist on two mosques and a fatal volcanic eruption.
If the prime minister’s high ratings in opinion polls are mirrored in the election results, Labour would govern on its own, without needing a coalition. But a recent poll suggested Ardern might need a coalition partner to form a government as her rival National Party leader Judith Collins is clawing back support.
Preliminary results will be announced on Oct 17.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Additional reporting in Melbourne by Lidia Kelly; Editing by David Gregorio and Leslie Adler)