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Analysis | The Many Legacies of Jacinda Ardern


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

At home, however, Ardern’s reputation was more mixed, and her decision to resign from the post followed a turbulent last two years in office. Her maneuvering in the wake of a global pandemic and decision to impose vaccine mandates in certain contexts provoked a furious reaction from some corners of the electorate. Violent protests rocked New Zealand’s usually calm political scene and the Prime Minister became the target of a wave of anti-establishment hatred, rooted in part in online disinformation and offline misogyny.

And so Ardern, 42, thought it best to remove himself from the line of fire. “I know what this job requires,” she said at an emotional press conference last week. “And I know I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”

On Sunday, Ardern’s Labor Party elected Education Minister Chris Hipkins as the party’s new leader. He is expected to take over from Ardern on Wednesday. The leadership reshuffle has a pragmatic aim, which is to help the ruling party reposition itself ahead of the upcoming election, where the centre-right opposition may come to the fore.

“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 leading group that can draw a line under the past three years and focus on the future.”

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

For a while Ardern could do no wrong. She attracted global attention as the second modern world leader to give birth while in office in 2018; not long after, she brought her baby to the floor of the UN General Assembly, an acknowledgment of the demands placed on all working mothers. Her cabinet after winning re-election in 2020 was the most diverse in New Zealand’s history, comprising 40 per cent women, 25 per cent from Maori backgrounds and 15 per cent 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, in which a white nationalist gunman killed 51 people. Ardern’s immediate response was to rush to the community, don a hijab out of respect for customs, and comfort the mourners. She was the face of a nation’s grief and sorrow, and then of its determination. Her administration passed important gun control legislation, and Ardern herself led a global effort to counter online extremism and hate.

When the pandemic hit the following year, Ardern made New Zealand the leading “zero covid” success story in the world. Of course, the island nation was blessed by its geographical remoteness, but even later, as border controls eased and the virus spread, no country in the western world had a lower covid death rate. That was partly the result of a successful vaccination campaign by the Ardern government.

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

Ardern’s covid policy was her “greatest legacy” — but also her downfall

Her opponents also felt the weight of an age. Unlike Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, another former darling of the centre-left, Ardern ultimately garnered a harsh bevy of critics. “The same policies that made New Zealand and its prime minister a zero-covid success also made Ardern an anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination lightning rod,” my colleague Michael E. Miller wrote.

“Because she was such a global and public symbol, she became the focus of many of those attacks,” Richard Jackson, a professor of peace studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, told my colleagues. “Their view was that she was destroying New Zealand society and introducing a ‘communist rule’, and yet the whole world seemed to praise and praise her. It irritated them greatly.

To some observers, Ardern was subjected to an unwarranted, disturbing cycle of rage. “The pressure on prime ministers is always high, but in this age of social media, clickbait and 24/7 media cycles, Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol that in my experience is unprecedented in our country,” said former New Zealander Zeelander. This is what Prime Minister Helen Clark writes in a statement. “Our society could now usefully think about whether it will continue to tolerate the excessive polarization that makes politics an increasingly unattractive profession.”

Analysts argue that the antics and anger of the anti-Ardern camp have shifted the anchor points of New Zealand politics. “The noose, the misogyny, the hatred, the level of people advocating violence, people threatening to hang politicians, that’s not part of the New Zealand political tradition,” said Alexander Gillespie, a law professor at the University of Waikato, at The Washington. After.

Ardern aims to return to private life, at least for now. What happens in Wellington in the following months is not her responsibility, although many analysts will no doubt look for her tracks in the events to come. The manner of her exit can also leave its own defining mark.

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

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

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