It’s odd to think that the next few weeks will bring a return of the hazy, pre-2017 days when nobody outside of New Zealand actually knew the name of the country’s prime minister. It’s perhaps stranger still that for more than five years, people all over the world did know the name of the leader of a South Pacific nation of 5 million people — and that Jacinda Ardern became one of the most popular, admired and recognizable political figures on the planet.
The impact was felt in ways large and small. Introducing myself as a New Zealander anywhere from D.C. to Dhaka no longer prompted questions about cricket or the “Lord of the Rings” films. I’m such a fan of your prime minister, people enthused. They didn’t often cite a favorite policy of Ardern’s; it was more of a feeling.
In many ways, Ardern put New Zealand on the world map. The reality was not so simple.
On Thursday, Ardern — who at her polling peak in 2020 was New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in a century — stunned the country, reporters and her own center-left Labour Party by announcing that she would resign with more than nine months left in her second term in office and with no obvious successor. It brought the career of one of New Zealand’s most successful politicians to an abrupt close — at the age of 42.
“I just don’t have enough in the tank for another four years,” said Ardern, at times holding back tears. “For me, it’s time.”
A meteoric rise
Before Ardern took up the job in 2017, aged 37, New Zealanders traveling abroad were content if people knew their country was not part of Australia. In a 2012 New York Times story about one of Ardern’s predecessors, John Key, who held office for more than eight years, a headline writer mistakenly referred to him as “Jeff.”
But Ardern quickly achieved an iconic, almost superstar status around the world, particularly among liberals who projected onto her lofty progressive ideals and the brand of kind and empathetic leadership they yearned for in their own countries. She was a champion of left-wing politics who also became only the second head of government to give birth while in office, and in a world that increasingly looked to beat back migrants and asylum-seekers from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan, her response to the white supremacist attack on two mosques in Christchurch was heralded as a triumph of tolerance and empathy. In these and other ways, Ardern stood in stark contrast to the right-wing strongmen such as Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro whose politics were, in 2017, sweeping the globe.
Critics in New Zealand decried Ardern’s legislative agenda as hardly progressive, and the prime minister herself rarely claimed that it was, but to her fans, that did not seem to matter. Not when she seemed naturally to produce such enduring images that hinted at a new, more equal politics: wearing a hijab as she hugged Muslim widows after the Christchurch horror and cradling her baby daughter on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly.
But it wasn’t just image; Ardern’s legacy will be as a “wartime” prime minister. She excelled at handling crises — and was perhaps confronted with more of them than any other contemporary leader of New Zealand, where whole years sometimes pass without anything much happening at all.
Beyond her exhortations to compassion and swift banning of all semi-automatic weapons after the Christchurch massacre, Ardern imposed one of the world’s strictest covid-19 lockdowns in the pandemic’s early days and gently coaxed New Zealanders into going along with it. That quick and tough response resulted in one of the world’s lowest national death tolls from the virus, and Ardern won a second term with a resounding, unprecedented victory that year — partly because everyone was in such a good mood.
There were other successes, such as policies to support the growth of New Zealand’s Indigenous language, Māori, to teach a more culturally competent history curriculum in all schools and to shape a sweeping climate change strategy. (Ardern called the crisis her generation’s “nuclear-free moment.”)
Criticism at home
For all the political wins, progressives in New Zealand often accused Ardern of inaction, particularly on thorny social issues. One particular criticism involved her refusal to share how she planned to vote ahead of a 2020 referendum on recreational cannabis, at a time when she was soaring in the polls. The measure was very narrowly defeated; only afterward did Ardern share that she had voted in favor of the initiative.
Her government also made little headway on New Zealand’s knottiest problems: The country remains in the grip of a housing and cost of living crisis; mortgage rates are high, wages are low, and there are fears about violent crime.
All of which meant that at home, Ardern’s elevation to global liberal darling felt at times like a double-edged sword. Observers seemed eager to force New Zealand and its leader into molds that at times felt cracked and warped.
I was reporting overseas for an American newspaper in July 2017 when Ardern assumed 11th-hour leadership of the Labour Party after her predecessor quit due to abysmal poll results. It was with reluctance that my editor permitted me to write a brief news story; brief because most of our readers wouldn’t have recognized the names of anyone involved.
It didn’t occur to me to speculate about Ardern’s candidacy for prime minister in a global context or share details of her political philosophies, mostly because — despite having followed her career in parliament for years — I couldn’t have told you what they were.
But I understood why New Zealanders took to Ardern in that moment: She was engaging, self-effacing, energetic and youthful, with a refreshing openness. (She referred to the Labour leadership as “the worst job in politics” while at the same time pledging a “relentlessly optimistic” campaign.) People liked her. And Labour stalwarts were ready to rally behind any alternative to the party’s four ill-fated leaders of the previous six years, none of whom had struck a chord with voters.
What I didn’t understand was how, by the time I woke up the next morning, Ardern fever appeared to be sweeping the world as well. It even had a name: “Jacindamania.” My American newspaper was flying a reporter straight to New Zealand to cover it.
It felt like things had gotten a little out of hand.
Hungry for an icon
Perhaps, though, Ardern’s ascension came at just the moment that liberals around the world were searching for someone to believe in. It was less than a year after Trump’s election and the #MeToo movement was percolating; later that summer, a long-delayed reckoning over sexual assault in Hollywood would explode. In early interviews, Ardern was asked a couple of sexist questions, one about whether she could juggle the job of prime minister with motherhood, should she ever have kids. A radio announcer in New Zealand called her a “chicky babe.”
It was enough to ignite a spark of feminist indignation and widespread support for Ardern. By the time she took office in a coalition government a few months later, she had established herself as a symbol of women’s leadership, kindness in politics and, of course, progressive hope.
The next day, I interviewed a veteran economist who cautioned against expecting progressivism from Ardern. Labour’s center-left social and economic policies were unchanged, Ganesh Nana told me; the party had just found someone, finally, who could sell them.
I spent the next five years fielding requests from around the world to write articles about Ardern and declining almost all of them, usually because what editors wanted me to say about New Zealand, and Ardern, bore little or no resemblance to reality.
The prime minister and her office appeared at times uncomfortable with the attention; no previous New Zealand leader had been plagued by daily demands for interviews in international news outlets. At first, Ardern regularly accepted invitations, but when she was lauded and fawned over around the world, her deepest detractors accused her of courting frivolous attention.
Falling poll numbers, nasty threats
Lately, her overseas admirers might have been surprised to learn that Ardern had in recent months been languishing in the polls; her center-left Labour Party had fallen to about 33 percent of the vote in one December survey, with the main opposition party, center-right National, at 38 percent.
Usually, parties in New Zealand must form coalition governments after elections in order to reach a governing majority; in 2020, Ardern was in the rare position of being able to govern alone after her party won an unheard-of 65 of parliament’s 120 seats.
This time around, the man who would have been her main opponent, Christopher Luxon, the leader of the National Party, isn’t especially charismatic or well-known — but he doesn’t have to be. One feature of the country’s political landscape is that many New Zealanders don’t see a lot of difference between the two major parties and will vote to give the other side a turn every few election cycles. That means that Labour’s likely loss in October’s election should not be stretched to grand conclusions about the future of progressivism — here or elsewhere around the world.
But Ardern’s flagging fortunes did sound some alarm bells. The global esteem Ardern was held in seemed, increasingly, to be a lightning rod for vitriol and even abuse as the pandemic wore on. Opposition to lockdowns and vaccine mandates emerged, and social divisions seemingly imported from the United States and elsewhere via social media crept into New Zealand.
The anger of the fringe movement opposed to covid-19 safety measures culminated in a three-week occupation of parliament’s grounds last February. Among the signs that protesters held, mockery and threats directed against Ardern were on frequent display. And even after the occupiers were dispersed, the tone of online discussions about Ardern became increasingly nasty; protesters yelling threats and carrying vile signs showed up at locations where she was due to visit.
She did not specify Thursday whether the misogyny and vitriol she experienced in recent months had contributed to her decision to leave the job, but based on her tone and choice of words, New Zealanders widely speculated that it had played a part.
A tough act to follow
I sometimes think about a women’s magazine profile of Ardern published the month before she was thrust into the Labour leadership; in it, she told an interviewer she had no desire for the top job.
“When you’re a bit of an anxious person, and you constantly worry about things, there comes a point where certain jobs are just really bad for you,” she said.
Remembering those comments now, I thought that Ardern’s resignation wasn’t a total surprise, nor was her pledge, during her speech, to be present for her daughter Neve’s first day of primary school this year.
“To Clarke, let’s finally get married,” Ardern told her fiancé, a television presenter, in her Thursday announcement.
But Ardern will be hard to replace domestically and abroad — not only for her party, but for what one might call New Zealand, Inc. Global admiration turned Ardern into the chief driver of what friends and I jokingly call the “New Zealand industrial complex,” a seemingly unquenchable thirst for content depicting the country as a progressive nirvana with no social problems, a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy.
In 2018, Ardern starred in a New Zealand tourism ad in which she gamely acted alongside comedian Rhys Darby to investigate the removal of New Zealand from world maps. She was a draw at events, where even people who were already very famous jostled to meet her.
There is no single other person in New Zealand politics, on either side of the aisle, who commands that kind of recognition. That could prove to be a problem; at an official launch in New York last September for a campaign to lure wealthy investors to New Zealand, RNZ reported that none of the invited international media showed up after they learned that Ardern would no longer be attending.
Now her party, and her country, will have to figure it out without her. I suspect — contrary to speculation that Ardern will soon take the leap into a global institution — that she’s off to be a normal person instead.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.