Jacinda Ardern | The woman who defied realpolitik

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, who announced her resignation citing burnout, offered an alternative leadership model rooted in a moral vision rather than political opportunism and rose to become a global hero of liberalism

January 22, 2023 01:12 am | Updated January 26, 2023 10:05 am IST

On January 19, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 42, stunned the world by announcing her resignation. Fighting back tears, she said that February 7 will be her last day in office. She added she wouldn’t seek re-election when the country goes to the polls on October 14.

The only explanation she would offer for her decision was to say, “I am leaving because with such a privileged role, comes responsibility, the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not... I know what this job takes and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.” Understandably, speculation is rife about the ‘real reason’ for her exit.

In the previous general elections of 2020 — New Zealand has a three-year election cycle — Ms. Ardern had been re-elected in a landslide of historic proportions. Her popularity, following her successful handling of the pandemic, was at its peak.

But in the post-pandemic months, it did seem like the law of averages had caught up with her, with a host of domestic issues dogging her second term. Record levels of inflation, a housing affordability crisis, rising crime rates, and a backlash against progressive policy initiatives — a climate tax on agricultural emissions that could affect farmers, empowering indigenous communities, an ambitious plan to overhaul the country’s water infrastructure, legislation to curb hate speech — have seen the centre-right New Zealand National Party overtake Labour in poll ratings. At the same time, although her popularity had dipped, she remained the most preferred politician to lead the country. There was nothing inevitable about her exit. The same, however, cannot be said about her ascent, as she seemed marked out for the country’s top post from an early age.

Born into a working class Mormon family — her father was a police officer and her mother, a school cafeteria worker — Ms. Ardern was labelled “most likely to become Prime Minister” even in high school. She joined the Labour party at the age of 17. After graduating in Communication Studies with majors in politics and public relations, she picked up political experience at the highest level working with the then Prime Minister Helen Clarke, and later in the Cabinet office of British PM Tony Blair.

Notwithstanding her stint under Mr. Blair — she would later question him about the 2003 Iraq war at an event in 2011 — her political views, Ms. Ardern says, were shaped by her exposure to child poverty, homelessness, alcohol and drug-dependency, and general deprivation in her country’s rural communities. She is a self-proclaimed social democrat and feminist with strong progressive principles — principles that she sought to uphold in public life. For instance, in her 20s, long before she became Prime Minister, Ms. Ardern renounced her faith, quitting the Mormon church because she believed in equal rights for LGBT people.

Rise to the top

After becoming the youngest sitting MP in the New Zealand Parliament in 2008, it took Ms. Ardern less than a decade to reach the top. She was elected the leader of Labour 2017, just before the elections. Her elevation triggered an avalanche of donations to the party and catapulted Labour above the New Zealand National Party in ratings for the first time in a decade. Given that her positions were not very different from that of her predecessor, observers attributed the upswing in Labour’s fortunes to Ms. Ardern’s charisma and personal popularity — what came to be known as ‘Jacindamania’.

In August 2017, at the age of 37, Ms. Ardern became one of the world’s youngest Prime Ministers, heading a coalition with the populist New Zealand First party. After taking the reins, Ms. Ardern announced that she wanted her country — although a small one with limited influence — to provide moral leadership on the global stage. On this aspect, there is little doubt Ms. Ardern stands out among world leaders for walking the talk.

She ushered in a fresh brand of gendered leadership marked by sensitivity, empathy, and concern for vulnerable minorities. On the flip side, it also made her a target for misogyny and sexism in a realm dominated by men. She became only the second Prime Minister in history, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, to give birth while in office. Liberals and feminists were delighted when she announced on Twitter that her partner, TV celebrity Clarke Gayford, would become “stay at home dad”. She went on six weeks maternity leave after making her Deputy PM the acting PM — underscoring that even world leaders are human and ought not to pretend otherwise.

The first big test of her premiership came when the pandemic struck. Her exemplary handling of the crisis — she acted fast to close her country’s borders before a single case was detected and made stringent quarantine requirements — helped keep COVID-related death rates in New Zealand one of the lowest in the Western world. In stark contrast to the hectoring press briefings of U.S. President Donald Trump, Ms. Ardern conducted informal Facebook Live chats that provided reliable information as well as reassurance for citizens forced into unprecedented, extended isolation.

But what made her a darling of the global centre-left, and led many to consider her a model antidote to rightwing populism rising around the world was her response to the deadly Christchurch shootings in which a white supremacist attacked two mosques, killing 51 people. Ms. Ardern completely ignored the familiar script that politicians tend to follow in such situations: there was no attempt to present the attack as a ‘war’ on the nation or on ‘our way of life’, no characterising the terrorist act as ‘cowardly’, no attempt to dehumanise the killer, and most importantly, no attempt to construct an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ narrative of rage and retribution. Instead, Ms. Ardern wore a hijab and went to mourn with the grieving families. By keeping the focus on the victims rather than the perpetrator, she brought a healing touch to an otherwise tense, polarising moment. She followed this up by expanding gun control regulations – unthinkable in the U.S. despite dozens of mass shooting incidents every year — and bringing new legislation to curb hate speech.

Leadership election

But after nearly six years on the job, Ms. Ardern seems to have concluded she no longer has what it takes. The Labour party is scheduled to hold a meeting on January 22 to elect a new leader. It is being speculated that the party might go for someone more combative, less ‘soft’ to take on an aggressive Opposition.

Some believe Ms. Ardern’s decision might have been sparked by an urge to prioritise her commitment to her family. She did mention in her resignation speech that her four-year-old daughter would start school this year and she wanted to “finally” get married to her partner. But perhaps there is also something to be said for taking her explanation at face value: maybe, Ms. Ardern resigned because she really believes she can no longer do justice to her job. After all, her biggest legacy is of a politician who made it cool to do the right thing. In a world where politics is synonymous with realpolitik, she demonstrated that politics informed by a moral vision — doing the right thing rather than what best suits one’s interests — is not unthinkable. Maybe, by resigning, she was simply trying to do the right thing — by her family, her party, and her country.

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