By Lidia Kelly
(Reuters) - With promises of extra financing for small businesses and more jobs as a severe economic downturn looms, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Sunday launched her party's campaign ahead of September general election.
Ardern's rise to become New Zealand's most popular prime minister in a century, buoyed by her response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has left the country largely unscathed, has boosted her prospects in the Sept. 19 election.
Ardern's Labour Party, governing in a coalition with the Greens and the nationalist New Zealand First party, will face the National Party in what is expected to be a pandemic-dominated campaign.
If the prime minister's high ratings are mirrored in the election results, Labour would govern on its own, without needing a coalition.
The government's early and hard coronavirus curbs that paralysed economic activity have put the country in a technical recession for the first time in a decade.
"There wasn't a playbook for COVID," Ardern said at the Labour Party congress. "There wasn't a playbook for the recovery."
She said a loan scheme for small businesses, which allows for no interest loans if paid back within a year and which was to end this month, will be extended until the year-end, and more environmental and infrastructure jobs will be created under a previously announced plan.
Small and medium-sized enterprises generate about a third of New Zealand's gross domestic product.
"I can't think of a time in our recent history when we have been collectively challenged by such a cruel combination of events – a terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption, a global pandemic and now its ensuing financial crisis," Ardern said.
Her leadership, widely seen as compassionate and steely, after last year's killing of 51 Muslim worshippers in the country's worst mass shooting, and after the December eruption of a volcano that killed 21, has brought Ardern worldwide admiration.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne and Praveen Menon in Wellington; Editing by William Mallard)