Wellington: New Zealanders resoundingly elected a new conservative government Saturday, with incumbent Prime Minister Chris Hipkins conceding his centre-left Labour party's six years in power were over.
Hipkins, who replaced charismatic two-term leader Jacinda Ardern in January, said he was "not in a position to form a government" and had already congratulated premier-in-waiting Christopher Luxon.
"The result tonight is not one that any of us wanted, but I want you to be proud of what we achieved over the last six years," Hipkins told Labour supporters in Wellington.
The National Party and its coalition partner ACT were projected to win 61 seats with 97 per cent of the vote tallied - enough to secure a majority in New Zealand's 120-seat parliament.
"On current numbers, it looks like National and ACT will be in position to form the next government," Luxon added.
The former airline executive said New Zealanders had "reached for hope and voted for change".
The election campaign had been dominated by an increasingly difficult economic situation and a spike in the cost of living that has hit New Zealanders hard.
"My pledge to you is that National will deliver for every New Zealander," Luxon said, promising to "build the economy and deliver tax relief".
The 53-year-old, who claims to sleep only five hours a night, completed a rapid political ascent. Only four years ago he was working in the private sector.
He spent seven years as chief executive of Air New Zealand, and was hailed a future leader upon entering politics in 2019.
In their first 100 days in office, National plan a crackdown on youth offending, a ban on cellphones in schools, and a scrapping of the Labour government's planned fuel tax hikes.
"New Zealanders are going to wake up to not only a new day, but the promise of a new government and a new direction," Luxon told supporters in Auckland.
"I cannot wait to get stuck in and get to work because New Zealand has chosen change and we will get this country back on track."
Both Luxon and Hipkins had tried to woo voters with promises to ease surging petrol prices, fix chronic housing shortages, and halt the skyrocketing prices of staple foods.
"We will bring down the cost of living. We will restore law and order. We will deliver better health care and we will educate our children so that they can grow up to live the lives they dream of," Luxon added.
In the small town of Waikanae, about an hour's drive north of Wellington, butcher Terry McKee said the spiralling cost of living was the single-most important election issue.
"Things are tight for everyone. Interest rates, fuel costs all drive costs up, but I don't know what another government is going to do," he told AFP.
The Labour party, which secured a landslide victory under Ardern in 2020, was on track to suffer one of its heaviest election defeats with forecasts pointing to 34 seats.
"Following on from my good friend Jacinda, it was not going to be an easy task," Hipkins admitted.
"I did know when I took on this job that it was going to be an uphill battle."