Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister since 2017, is to step down by February, bringing to a close a five-year term that brought her international acclaim but left her increasingly politically isolated at home as a cost of living crisis took hold.
Ms Ardern said that following a period of reflection over Christmas, she no longer had the energy to continue as leader of the government and would resign rather than contest a general election this year.
“I have no regrets,” she told reporters about her decision, adding that she would be “doing a disservice to New Zealand” if she remained in the role.
The sudden conclusion of the 42-year-old Ardern’s premiership will mark the end of an era that generated intense global interest in New Zealand, both for her socially progressive mandate and hardline response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bryce Edwards, a political analyst at Victoria University of Wellington, said Ardern rose to power “out of nowhere” at a time when left-wing parties were in retreat.
“There was a sense of mania – Jacindamania,” he said, praising her charisma at a time when figures such as former US president Donald Trump were in the ascendancy. “She was a revelation and a nice counter to populist, reactionary politics.”
Ms Ardern won a sweeping election victory in 2020 as the public backed her stringent policy of border closures and lockdowns in an effort to stem Covid’s spread. She also won praise for strong and compassionate leadership in her response to the 2019 terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch in which 51 people were killed, as well as with the eruption of the White Island volcano.
But public sentiment towards her administration has soured this year as New Zealand grapples with a cost of living crisis, a sharp rise in interest rates, lower house prices and a rise in crime.
“Things have changed in New Zealand since the landslide election victory of 2020. The country has got grumpy and annoyed,” said Edwards.
A 1 News Kantar poll in December showed that Ardern maintained a lead over the right-wing National party’s Christopher Luxon as the preferred prime minister, but support for the Labour party had dropped to its lowest level since 2017.
The poll indicated that even with the backing of its traditional coalition partner, the Green party, Labour would be unlikely to be able to form a government.
Stephen Mills, a former political adviser to prime ministers David Lange and Helen Clark, said that Ardern had not faced internal pressure to stand down. “The Nationals [opposition party] will be the ones opening the champagne tonight.”
Ms Ardern said on Thursday that a general election would take place on October 14th and denied that she was standing down due to the poor polling. She added that it was important to give a new Labour leader enough time to prepare for an election rather than sticking with one who “didn’t have enough in the tank to take them through”.
A new prime minister is expected to be in place by February 7th.
Mr Edwards said of the resignation: “Some will say she has cut and run. Others that she has the emotional intelligence to go out on a high.”
Ms Ardern, who has often been tipped to follow her mentor and former prime minister Helen Clark into a role with the UN, denied that her departure was motivated by plans for a next move. “That hasn’t been my ambition,” she said.
International leaders including Anthony Albanese, Australia’s prime minister, and Justin Trudeau, Canada’s leader, were quick to praise Ms Ardern’s legacy. “Jacinda Ardern has shown the world how to lead with intellect and strength. She has demonstrated that empathy and insight are powerful leadership qualities,” Albanese said.
Neale Jones, a former adviser to Ms Ardern, said that her exit presented Labour with a “silver lining” of appointing a leader more focused on the cost of living crisis and distancing the party from radical programmes such as water and media reforms that had proved unpopular.
Grant Robertson, the deputy prime minister and an obvious successor to Ardern, immediately ruled himself out of the running. Other potential candidates include Chris Hipkins, an experienced politician and the current minister of education, police and public service who was responsible for the Covid response, and Michael Wood, the immigration, transport and workplace safety minister.
Kiri Allan, minister of justice, is also seen as having a strong chance to lead the post-Ardern Labour party. She would become the country’s first full-time premier of Maori descent if elected.
Mr Mills said the pandemic had left many New Zealanders feeling like they had been living in “dog years” and that Mr Ardern’s tenure had to many seemed much longer than it was.
Ms Ardern, who gave birth to her daughter Neve while in office and delayed her wedding last year because of a Covid outbreak, appeared to betray similar fatigue during her press conference in the coastal city of Napier. “It’s time,” she said.
Jacinda Ardern’s political career
2008: Elected to New Zealand parliament after working in the UK, including a stint in prime minister Tony Blair’s office
2017: Elected leader of the Labour party and becomes prime minister less than three months later, after forming a coalition with minority parties
2018: Gives birth to her daughter Neve. She takes six weeks of maternity leave and later brings Neve to the UN General Assembly
2019: Leads New Zealand through mourning after a terrorist attack on two mosques in March in Christchurch and implements stricter gun control laws in response. The eruption of the White Island volcano in December again brings her compassionate leadership style to the fore
2020: New Zealand closes its borders and adopts some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world in response to Covid-19. The hardline approach is widely backed and she leads Labour to a decisive victory in October elections
2022: New Zealand’s pandemic policies come under strain as mass protests take place outside parliament. The government lifts restrictions but a cost of living crisis and sharp rise in interest rates and inflation hit Ardern’s popularity. She meets US president Joe Biden and signs an enhanced security pact to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region
2023: Ardern steps down, saying her energy level, not poor polling, triggered her decision
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023