It’s a sad day for Jacindamaniacs the world over.
In a shock move, Jacinda Ardern, the “global star” leader, announced that she is stepping down as prime minister of New Zealand, leaving just three days for the ruling Labour Party to find a replacement.
While insisting her past five-and-a-half years in office have been the “most fulfilling” of her life, the burned out 42-year-old said she lacks the energy to go on in the role. “I know when I have enough left in the tank to do it justice,” she admitted, during a hastily arranged press conference, before adding: “I would be doing a disservice to New Zealand to continue.”
What legacy does Ardern leave behind and how will she be remembered?
A female trailblazer
Ardern was elected as PM in 2017 at the age of just 37, making her the youngest female head of government in the world. A year later, she gave birth to her daughter Neve, becoming the second elected world leader ever to have a child while in office, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 1990. She made history again that same year by attending the UN general assembly in New York with her baby in tow.
Two years into Ardern’s premiership, New Zealand witnessed its worst terror attack in history, when a white supremacist entered two mosques in Christchurch and gunned down worshippers, killing 51.
Ardern was praised for her compassion after emotive images of her, dressed in a hijab, hugging a woman at the mosque made the rounds.
But her response went beyond good optics. Marking a stark contrast from political reaction to US terror attacks, she also acted fast to tighten the country’s gun control legislation, banning military-style semi-automatic weapons six days after the attack. More than 62,000 firearms were ultimately removed from circulation.
When it came to the pandemic, Ardern hit the ground running, but her approach has not aged quite so well.
In the early days of the coronavirus, Ardern was praised for her “world-leading” response, which saw the country stamp out the virus within its borders by acting fast to impose a strict lockdown. As a result, New Zealand is indeed among the countries with the lowest rates of illness and death in the world. And at the last general election in 2020, her handling of the pandemic is largely credited for Ardern’s Labour party securing a near-unprecedented landslide victory.
But as time has gone on, things have soured.
Alongside other zero-Covid leaders, Ardern has faced growing resentment from a population tired of draconian restrictions, with many urging her to “stop delaying the inevitable.”
Her border policies have proven especially contentious.
Not only has “Fortress New Zealand” isolated itself from the rest of the world, but also, tens of thousands of its own citizens – such as international students – have been locked out of their own country.
A particularly damning case made headlines in January 2022 after Charlotte Bellis, a pregnant Kiwi journalist who had been working in Afghanistan, said she was forced to turn to the Taliban for help after the New Zealand government rejected her application to return home to give birth.
Though it’s perhaps worth adding, when it came to lockdown restrictions, Ardern’s administration was certainly not plagued by “one rule for us, another for them” accusations. In fact, in January 2022, Ardern cancelled her own wedding after just 10 Omicron cases were detected in the country…
Ardern has been praised for her compassionate leadership style, with the simple phrase “be strong, be kind” becoming something of a trademark.
That said, over the past year, amid post-pandemic soaring inflation and economic headwinds, critics have increasingly taken issue with this “empty motto”, insisting it will take more than kindness to get the economy on its feet and stop struggling people from falling into poverty.
Many have also branded her reform efforts to tackle child poverty and end the housing crisis a failure. And in early 2021, a poll revealed that 70 per cent of New Zealanders “think the country is going in the right direction”. By the end of 2022, that figure had plunged to just 30 per cent.
Over the past year, her party has fallen behind in the polls. In December, the Labour Party was trailing the centre-right National Party by around five percentage points, indicating a tricky path to re-election in October.
Last but not least, Ardern’s resignation may well be one of the moments she is best remembered for.
There is something refreshingly honest about a politician admitting they have simply run out of steam. There is no undisclosed “real reason” for her shock decision, she has insisted, adding: ’I am human.”
In a world filled with political hangers-on, it would be advantageous if there were more leaders who, as Ardern herself put it, “know when it’s time to go.”
Some say she is going before she loses the next election. If so, that’s good timing too.
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