New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a global figure in progressive politics, shocked the country on Thursday by announcing that she would be stepping down from office within weeks.
The 42-year-old – who has led the country through natural disasters, the Covid pandemic and the worst terrorist attack ever – said she no longer had “enough in the tank”.
Ardern: Not enough in the tank
“I’m human. We give everything we can for as long as we can and that’s when it’s time. For me, it’s time,” she said at a meeting of members of her Labor Party.
Ardern said she would step down no later than February 7, less than three years after winning a landslide election to secure her second term in office.
Since the 2020 peak of “Jacindamania”, Ardern’s government has suffered – its popularity hampered by high inflation, a looming recession and conservative opposition.
“I think leading a country is the most privileged job a person can have, but also one of the most challenging,” said Ardern.
“You can’t and shouldn’t do this unless you have a full tank, plus a little reserve for those unexpected challenges.”
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Ardern has won international acclaim for her sympathetic handling of the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre, in which 51 Muslim worshipers were killed and 40 injured.
Later that year she was commended for her decisive leadership during the eruption of White Island (also known as Whakaari).
On Thursday, she cited her government’s actions on housing affordability, climate change and child poverty as other sources of pride.
“We did this while responding to some of the greatest threats to the health and economic well-being of our nation since World War II,” Ardern said.
She appeared on the covers of British Vogue and Time, and there was a perception that Ardern was more popular abroad than she was at home.
Popularity is declining amid the cost of living crisis
At its peak it was a local power, but its government has been steadily declining in opinion polls over the past year.
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“It’s about time. It has destroyed the economy and food prices have skyrocketed,” said Esther Hedges of Cambridge in New Zealand’s North Island.
The 65-year-old added, “I’m not happy with it and I don’t know any of it.”
Christina Sayre, 38, said Ardern was “the best prime minister we’ve had”.
“I love the kind of person she is and she cares about people. I’m sorry to see her go.”
The pressure of the job was evident, as Ardern showed a rare lapse in balance last month when she was caught inadvertently calling an opposition politician an “arrogant prick”.
Ardern announced that New Zealand would choose its next prime minister in the general election to be held on 14 October.
She said she would continue to serve as a deputy until then.
Her departure left a void at the Labor Party top, with her deputy Grant Robertson quickly ruling out a leadership inclination.
Although recent opinion polls indicate that the centre-right coalition is likely to win the election, Ardern said this was not the reason for her resignation.
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“I’m not leaving because I think we can’t win the next election, but because I think we can and we will,” she said.
“I am leaving because with such a privileged job comes a huge responsibility. The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead – and also when you are not.”
Ardern was the second female prime minister in the world to give birth while in office, after Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990.
She said she’s looking forward to spending more time with her daughter, Neff, who is set to start school later this year, and finally marry her partner, TV personality Clark Gifford.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese led the international tributes for Ardern, saying she had “showed the world how he leads with intelligence and strength”.
“She has demonstrated that empathy and insight are powerful leadership qualities,” Albanese said.
“Jacinda has been a fierce advocate for New Zealand, an inspiration to many and a great friend to me.”
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