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New Zealand opposition leader quits 2 months from election

Last Updated Jul 13, 2020 at 5:00 pm MDT

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The leader of New Zealand’s opposition National Party, Todd Muller, has quit, citing health reasons just over two months from a general election and 53 days after taking charge in a leadership coup amid the party’s stagnant poll numbers.

In a statement released at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, which reportedly shocked lawmakers in the right-of-centre party, the 67-year-old Muller said he was stepping down “effective immediately.”

Lawmakers were meeting by teleconference to decide how to proceed, with few clear candidates to assume the leadership.

“It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be leader of the Opposition and Leader of the New Zealand National Party at this critical time for New Zealand,” Muller said. “It is more important than ever that the New Zealand National Party has a leader who is comfortable in the role.

“The role has taken a heavy toll on me personally, and on my family, and this has become untenable from a health perspective.”

The National Party has been embroiled for the past week in a scandal after it was revealed a junior lawmaker leaked private health details of New Zealand COVID-19 patients to news media. The information was provided by a former party president who received it confidentially in her capacity as acting chief executive of the Auckland rescue helicopter organization.

Muller has been widely criticized for his handling of the scandal and the veracity of some of his statements had been challenged. He was facing questions over when he knew the source of the leak and if he knew one of his most senior MPs had also received the information.

The private information was sent to three media organizations but was not published.

Muller was a low-profile member of the party when he was chosen to lead the coup that toppled former leader Simon Bridges, whose lack of popularity with voters had begun to worry MPs as the election approached.

National has struggled to dent the popularity of New Zealand’s charismatic prime minister Jacinda Ardern, whose government has high approval ratings for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. New Zealand has gone 73 days without a case of community transmission and has suffered only 22 deaths.

Life has returned to normal with schools, bars and restaurants all open and with packed stadiums at sports events.

National looked to Muller’s strong business credentials and his links to the farming community to solidify the party’s base. But his perceived lack of charisma, especially in comparison to Ardern, failed to lift its polling numbers.

The Associated Press