It was as sudden as it was predictable. On Thursday morning (19 January) Jacinda Ardern announced that she was resigning as prime minister of New Zealand. She will step down on 7 February and a general election will be held in October.
Ardern made the announcement at the Labour Party’s annual caucus. “It’s time,” she said. “I’m 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’s that simple.”
Ardern was first elected in 2017 at the age of 37, becoming the youngest female head of government in the world. Her victory soon sparked “Jacinda-mania”, as her progressive ideals and star power propelled her onto the world stage. In between cover profiles in magazines, including Vogue, she received international plaudits for everything from giving birth while in the role to her compassionate handling of the March 2019 terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, in which 51 people were killed. She won re-election by an increased margin in October 2020, achieving Labour’s best result since 1946 and leading New Zealand’s first majority government since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, Ardern was initially praised for her approach: swiftly locking down the country’s borders and introducing mask and vaccine mandates. But as the pandemic dragged on she became a lightning rod for criticism. Though the measures kept New Zealand’s death count relatively low (fewer than 2,500 deaths), the economy was hit hard and Ardern’s widespread support began to shrink. In September 2022 Ardern’s government abandoned the majority of Covid restrictions.
She ended 2022 with Labour polling at 33 per cent, which raised the spectre of defeat at the next general election. Ardern had also endured an increasing number of violent threats from those enraged by lockdown and vaccine measures. Infuriated protesters twice tried to run the prime minister’s vehicle off the road.
Yet Ardern was careful to emphasise in her resignation announcement that her decision did not rest on the surge in threats against her. “I don’t want to leave the impression that the adversity you face in politics is the reason that people exit,” she said. “Yes, it does have an impact. We are humans after all, but that was not the basis of my decision.”
Instead she hinted at the pragmatism that had been a defining feature of her leadership: “I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader – one who knows when it’s time to go.”