Jacinda Ardern’s Departure Signifies a Major Shift in New Zealand Politics

Jacinda Ardern’s resignation speaks volumes about New Zealand politics

They’ve been gunning for her for a long time.” After nearly six years leading New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s tenure as prime minister will come to an end February 7. It’s also the end of at least one phase of her international prominence, as she was celebrated for her leadership through a white supremacist mass shooting at two mosques in the city of Christchurch and through the Covid-19 crisis. She was the youngest ever PM and gave birth while in office, pushing her further into the international spotlight as a young, feminist leader. Ardern announced Thursday that she would step down prior to the end of her term and wouldn’t seek reelection. “I know there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so-called ‘real’ reason was,” she said. “The only interesting angle you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, that I am human.” Domestic politics, not international acclaim, determine a country’s leadership within a democracy, and Ardern’s Labour Party has plummeted in the polls as the economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis sets in. New Zealand’s post-Covid economy is pointed toward a recession, and child poverty continues to rise, bringing about dissatisfaction from both the left and the right. Ardern rightly won international plaudits for her response to the 2019 shootings in Christchurch, which killed 51 people. She connected to the Muslim community, committed the government to paying funeral costs for victims, and proposed to ban semiautomatic weapons. Her decisive but emotional and empathetic response projected her onto the international stage early in her leadership. But inflation continues to batter economies across the globe and in New Zealand, that’s playing out in the housing market. Skyrocketing housing prices and high interest rates have crippled that sector of New Zealand’s economy and helped push the country toward a recession. Ardern also failed to make significant headway on child poverty in New Zealand. Critics argue that the government didn’t go nearly far enough, especially given that it was one of her major policy issues. Those domestic issues have made Labour vulnerable from both the right and the left. But perhaps more than a defeat for Labour, the next elections could be more of a return to form for New Zealand’s Parliament, which operates on a mixed member proportional system. That means any one party is unlikely to get a clear, overwhelming majority of seats, requiring coalition government. Western feminists have embraced Ardern, and rightly so, as a politician who balances power with compassion. Ardern took her child, Neve, to a United Nations General Assembly meeting in 2018, making history in the process. Her style is a marked shift not only from the machismo of autocratic leaders, but the often-combative nature of politics generally. Ardern’s symbolic impact, in addition to her leadership, will likely be a major part of her legacy. Though it’s probably not the driving force behind her resignation, that particular leadership style had also fixated “the political right, and the misogynists in particular, and the anti-vaxxers and the fringe dwellers in our political… They’ve been gunning for her for a long time.” Many countries around the world are ready for a change, and Ardern’s impact is significant and will likely outweigh her government’s inadequacies.