The many legacies of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

The many legacies of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

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The announced resignation of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was perhaps more a shock to her admirers abroad than her compatriots at home. For much of her more than half decade in power, Ardern seemed a leader whose stature on the world stage belied the relative smallness of her nation and the vagaries of its parliamentary politics. She was a champion of the 21st century center left: a staunch defender of pluralism and tolerance within her own society and elsewhere, an advocate for climate action, and a global feminist icon. The example of her charisma and capacity for empathy led to a phenomenon that swept the world: Jacindamania.

At home, though, Ardern’s reputation was more mixed, and her decision to quit the post followed a turbulent last two years in office. Her maneuvering in the wake of a global pandemic and decision to impose vaccination mandates in certain contexts stoked an angry backlash from some corners of the electorate. Violent protests rocked New Zealand’s customarily placid political scene and the prime minister became the target of a wave of anti-establishment hate, some of it rooted in online misinformation and offline misogyny.

And so Ardern, 42, reckoned that it was better to remove herself from the firing line. “I know what this job takes,” she said at an emotional news conference last week. “And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”

On Sunday, Ardern’s Labour Party selected Education Minister Chris Hipkins as the party’s new leader. He’s expected to assume Ardern’s post by Wednesday. The leadership reshuffle does have a pragmatic purpose, helping the ruling party reposition itself ahead of upcoming elections where the center-right opposition may come ahead.

“Ardern has become an increasingly polarizing figure,” wrote Richard Shaw, a professor of politics at Massey University in New Zealand. “By stepping aside now she gives her party plenty of time to install a new leadership group that can draw a line under the past three years and focus on the future.”

Sexism dogged Jacinda Ardern’s tenure. Battling it is part of her legacy.

For a time, Ardern could do no wrong. She attracted worldwide attention as only the second modern world leader to give birth while in office in 2018; not long thereafter, she brought her infant to the floor of the U.N. General Assembly, a recognition of the demands placed on all working mothers. Her cabinet after winning reelection in 2020 was the most diverse in New Zealand’s history, comprising 40 percent women, 25 percent people of Maori background and 15 percent people from the country’s LGBTQ community.

In 2019, New Zealand was rocked by a far-right terrorist attack on two mosques in the city of Christchurch, which saw a white nationalist gunman kill 51 people. Ardern’s immediate response was to rush to the community, don a hijab out of respect to its customs and comfort the mourners. She was the face of a nation’s sorrow and grief, and then also its resolve. Her government pushed through significant gun control legislation, and Ardern herself led a global effort to counter against online extremism and hate.

When the pandemic hit the following year, Ardern made New Zealand into the world’s preeminent “zero covid” success story. Sure, the island nation was blessed by its geographic remoteness, but even later as border controls were relaxed and the virus spread, no country in the Western world had a lower covid death rate. That was in part because of a successful immunization drive carried out by Ardern’s government.

The many crises that hit during Ardern’s tenure, and her capacity to manage them, are a defining element of her legacy. “In each disaster the prime minister acted decisively — from banning semi-automatic weapons and reforming firearms law to implementing a world-leading alert level system to crush covid-19 outbreaks,” wrote academic Morgan Godfery in the Guardian. “The speed at which these disasters would arrive, and the equally speedy response, makes it feel as if the short five-year period the prime minister was in power was actually an age.”

Ardern’s covid policy was her ‘greatest legacy’ — but also her undoing

Her detractors felt the weight of an age, as well. Not unlike Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, another onetime darling of the center left, Ardern eventually engendered a hardcore base of critics. “The same policies that made New Zealand and its prime minister a zero-covid success also made Ardern a lightning rod for anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine ardor,” wrote my colleague Michael E. Miller.

“Because she was such a global and public symbol, she did become the focus of a lot of those attacks,” said Richard Jackson, professor of peace studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, to my colleagues. “Their opinion was that she was destroying New Zealand society and bringing in ‘communist rule,’ and yet the whole world seemed to be praising her and lauding her. It irritated the hell out of them.”

To some observers, Ardern became subject to an unjustified, troubling cycle of rage. “The pressures on prime ministers are always great, but in this era of social media, clickbait, and 24/7 media cycles, Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country,” former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark wrote in a statement. “Our society could now usefully reflect on whether it wants to continue to tolerate the excessive polarization which is making politics an increasingly unattractive calling.”

Analysts argue that the antics and ire of the anti-Ardern camp have shifted the moorings of New Zealand’s politics. “The nooses, the misogyny, the hate, the level of people advocating violence, people threatening to hang politicians, that’s not part of the New Zealand tradition of politics,” Alexander Gillespie, professor of law at the University of Waikato, told The Washington Post.

Ardern aims to return to private life, at least for now. What happens in subsequent months in Wellington won’t be her responsibility, though many analysts will undoubtedly search for her mark in events to come. The manner of her exit may also leave its own defining imprint.

“She worked as hard as she could for as long as she could, and one legacy she will leave behind is the fact that she showed the work — what it took to be a leader and a parent, and how eventually it took so much that she could not in good conscience continue doing it, not in the way she would have liked,” my colleague Monica Hesse wrote.

“I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused,” Ardern said while announcing her resignation. “And that you can be your own kind of leader — one who knows when it’s time to go.”

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