WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Lawmakers from New Zealand’s main conservative party on Tuesday chose their first indigenous Maori leader as they regrouped after an election loss.
National Party members selected 41-year-old Simon Bridges from among five candidates. He is a former lawyer and prosecutor who was first elected to Parliament 10 years ago. He held several ministerial portfolios in the previous government, including energy, labor and transport.
The party also chose a Maori deputy leader after Paula Bennett fended off one challenger to retain her position.
Maori make up about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population of 5 million people and first arrived in the country hundreds of years before Europeans.
New Zealand has had three women serve as prime minister but has never had a Maori prime minister, an opportunity Bridges would have if he wins the next election in 2020.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity I’ve got ahead,” Bridges said. “I hope Maori are proud of me.”
He said he wants to appeal to a “broad cross-range” of New Zealanders because that’s what his party represents.
Bridges replaces former Prime Minister Bill English, 56, who announced earlier this month that he was quitting politics.
The National Party was in power for nine years before the election in September, when it won the most votes of any single party. But the liberal Labour Party was able to forge an alliance with two smaller parties and form a government under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
The selection of Bridges could help blunt criticism that Ardern, 37, was better able to connect with a younger generation than English. Bridges and Ardern have faced off before, when they appeared on breakfast television together as “young guns” representing their respective parties.
Opinion polls indicate the popularity of Ardern and the Labour Party have risen since she was elected, and Bridges said the National Party would face the next election as underdogs.
Ardern has moved quickly to fulfill campaign pledges such as banning foreign speculators from buying homes, increasing spending on education and making the nation carbon neutral by 2050.
Her announcement last month that she was pregnant attracted intense interest around the world. She is due to have her first child in June, when she plans to take six weeks’ leave.
The challengers who Bridges beat were lawmakers Amy Adams, Steven Joyce, Judith Collins and Mark Mitchell.