Jacinda Ardern’s resignation speaks volumes about New Zealand politics

Jacinda Ardern’s term as Prime Minister comes to an end on February 7, after leading New Zealand for nearly six years. Her Labor party is sinking in the polls and the country looks poised for a recession.

It is also the end of at least one phase of her international fame. Ardern became famous not for New Zealand’s primacy in the international order, but rather for who she was and her specific responses to the national and international catastrophes that defined her tenure. She was celebrated for her leadership through a white supremacist mass shooting of two mosques in the city of Christchurch, and through the Covid-19 crisis – two moments that contrasted her with bombastic, autocratic leaders such as former US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, in addition to making her a symbol for young women in leadership.

Citing burnout after five and a half years in office, Ardern announced on Thursday that she would step down before the end of her term and would not seek re-election. “I know in the aftermath of this decision there will be a lot of discussion about what the so-called ‘real’ reason was,” she told a press conference on Thursday. “The only interesting angle you’ll find is that after six years of great challenges, I’m human.”

Ardern was not the first female Prime Minister in New Zealand’s history, but she was the youngest ever Prime Minister and gave birth while in office, further propelling her into the international spotlight as a young, feminist leader at the same time – at least in many Western countries and especially the US – when older men seemed to maintain their grip on power despite social progress.

But domestic politics, not international fame, determines a country’s leadership within a democracy, and Ardern’s Labor Party has plummeted in the polls as the economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis begins. New Zealand’s post-Covid economy is pointing to recession, and child poverty – one of Ardern’s causes – continues to rise, sparking discontent from both the left and the right.

By any measure imaginable, Ardern met the moment during the two major crises that defined her governance, and her gifts for communication, empathy, and collaboration were well suited to those crises. It remains popular within the Labor Party and until recently was more popular than the general party in opinion polls. However, with economic conditions changing and New Zealanders eager to move forward with Covid-19, Ardern’s counterpart in the conservative National Party, Christopher Luxon, is gaining ground in the polls, indicating that the majority Labor won in 2020 could come to one ending in October, when Ardern has called for elections.

While Ardern’s announcement surprised international observers, it may have come as less of a shock to New Zealanders, Kathy Smits, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Auckland, told Vox. “The historical example that really comes to my mind, and to a lot of people, is in Britain after the war — [Winston] Churchill was voted out in 1945. He led Britain through the war and was an incredibly popular prime minister, and yet people were ready for a change,” she said. “I think there’s something similar going on in this environment.”

Like many countries around the world, New Zealand is ready for change

Ardern rightly received international praise for her response to the 2019 shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, which left 51 people dead. The shooter was an outspoken neo-Nazi and white nationalist who used semi-automatic weapons to carry out the massacre. Ardern immediately joined the Muslim community and required the government to pay the burial costs for the victims. Her decisive yet emotional and empathetic response launched her early in her leadership on the international scene; her proposal shortly after the shooting to also ban semi-automatic weapons showed her ability to act courageously in the public interest.

That was in particularly stark contrast to the US which, despite continued mass shootings, largely has failed to implement meaningful policy change, barring tailored reforms passed last year.

“What Jacinda is really good at is communication – kind of symbolic dimensions of leadership, bringing people together. She’s very good at that,’ says Smits.

But as important as Ardern’s global profile is, there’s no getting around the hard facts of domestic democratic politics. Inflation continues to plague economies around the world; in New Zealand this mainly affects the housing market. Many New Zealanders earn their income from real estate: owning and renting property. But skyrocketing house prices, Smits explained, combined with high interest rates have crippled that sector of the New Zealand economy and pushed the country into recession. It has also put a strain on the housing market, making affordable housing difficult to find for many New Zealanders.

Ardern also failed to make significant progress on New Zealand’s child poverty rate, which is among the highest in the Western world. “It’s really at a pretty shocking level,” Smits said, especially among the Māori and Pacific population. While the Ardern government managed to marginally reduce the rate of child poverty during its tenure, critics argue that the government did not go nearly far enough, especially given that it was one of its most important policy issues.

In addition, New Zealand has a fairly low tax rate, despite the fact that taxes or some form of income are required to fund social programs, such as the kind that would help reduce child poverty. But Ardern’s party refused to introduce capital gains taxes on income – with Ardern saying such a tax increase would never happen under her leadership.

Those domestic problems have left Labor vulnerable from both the right and the left; more progressive politicians and voters are disappointed with the party’s inability to make real and significant progress on social issues — in part because the government refused to take the necessary steps to raise money that would support social programs, Smits said .

But perhaps more than a defeat for Labour, the next election could be more of a return to form for New Zealand’s parliament, which operates on a mixed-member system. That means it is unlikely that any of the parties will get a clear, overwhelming majority of seats, which would require a coalition government.

And after several years of crisis within the National Party, opposition leader Christopher Luxon appears to have strengthened his party’s position enough to bring in some Labor defectors, Smits said, although it is too early to say what the outcome of the the next election will be.

Not only New Zealand is ready for change; Brazil’s Bolsonaro was impeached last year by former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva. In Italy, the far-right Giorgia Meloni replaced technocratic Prime Minister Mario Draghi last year, and in 2021 longtime German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down after 16 years in power.

Ardern’s impact is significant and will likely outweigh her administration’s shortcomings

Western feminists have embraced Ardern, and rightly so, as a politician who balances power with compassion; a woman who had a baby while also guiding her country through some of the most challenging years in recent history.

Leaders love Hillary ClintonDirector General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesusand former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard tweeted in support of Ardern and the impact of her tenure, with Gillard saying “Her example has been a shining light to many, especially women.”

Ardern’s symbolic impact, alongside her leadership, will likely be an important part of her legacy. Ardern took her child, Neve, to a United Nations General Assembly meeting in 2018 when she was just three months old — and made history in the process. She was the first elected leader to give birth to office since Benazir Bhutto did the same in 1990, and only the second ever to do so.

Ardern’s style, too, is a clear shift not only from the machismo of autocratic leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro, but also from the often combative nature of politics in general, as Richard Shaw, a professor of politics at Massey University in New York Zeeland, told NBC on Thursday.

“I think what she offered to the world was actually a model for doing democratic politics that doesn’t rely on taking advantage of other people,” Shaw said. “She never uses the term ‘enemy’ to describe anyone.”

While it’s probably not the driving force behind her firing, Shaw said, that particular leadership style was also fixed “the political right, and the misogynists in particular, and the anti-vaxxers and the fringes in our political community” on Ardern.

It’s impossible to know exactly what Ardern’s legacy will be, but her power as a symbol not only of a successful leader – who is also a wife and a mother – arguably had the same effect as former President Barack Obama’s election as president. America’s first black president. Both set a new standard for progress, even though their domestic policies fell short of progressive ideals. But more than just being a wife, a mother, and a world leader, she presented a compelling model of how leaders could behave and make decisions, even difficult ones, with clarity and compassion.

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