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New Zealand's new opposition Labour party leader, Jacinda Ardern, speaks during an event held ahead of the national election at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ross Setford


WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The race to form New Zealand's next government took an unexpected turn on Thursday as a "bombshell" poll showed the opposition Labour party had overtaken the ruling National party, threatening its almost decade-long hold on power.

Prime Minister Bill English, a political veteran and former finance minister, faces a highly contested race against Labour's Jacinda Ardern, whose charisma and rising popularity have prompted domestic media to coin the term "Jacindamania".

National fell three points to 41 percent, its lowest result since 2005, in a poll commissioned by 1 News and published on its website only an hour before English and Ardern face off in a debate.

Support for the newly invigorated Labour party jumped six points to 43 percent, after the last-minute leadership change boosted its chances.

"This is a bombshell," said Bryce Edwards, political analyst at Wellington-based Critical Politics. "It does mean that this campaign has turned on its head. National being in second place is entirely unexpected for the last ten years."

The result pushed the New Zealand currency to a three-month low of $0.7148 as the result at the Sept. 23 election looks increasingly uncertain.

Ardern, 37, took the helm of the Labour Party this month, after poor poll results prompted the resignation of Andrew Little, breathing fresh air into an election that until then had been widely considered a slam dunk for National.

National or Labour would still need to strike a deal with smaller parties to form a government in New Zealand's German-style proportional voting system.

The Green Party, with which Labour has an agreement to work, edged up to 5 percent. The two parties would probably still need the nationalist New Zealand First party, which slipped two points to 8 percent, to form a government.

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Ana Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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