The surprising resignation of Jacinda Ardern, who announced her intention to leave her post as prime minister of New Zealand because she “no longer has the energy” to continue with a job of great responsibility, will be remembered as one of the key moments in the career of a of the most atypical and interesting heads of state and government of recent decades, not only in New Zealand.
Ardern, who became prime minister in 2017, has in many ways been remarkable. While leading a country of five million people with a thriving but small economy, Ardern has become one of the most admired and respected political leaders in recent years. She did so because of her personal and empathetic style of governance, but also because of her ability to lead New Zealand through many times of crisis. Your progressive government has achieved various political and legislative successes, even if the overall balance is not entirely positive, and some promises made at the beginning of your mandate have not been kept.
That Jacinda Ardern’s political career has been exceptional in its own way and particularly marked by her personality can be clearly seen from her first national election campaign, in 2017. Ardern, who until then had been the deputy to the leader of the New Zealand Labor Party, she was named party leader and prime ministerial candidate seven weeks before elections in September of that year. In a very short time she managed to exceptionally increase its approval.
The Labor Party, who were in danger of losing the election disastrously, on the contrary won 14 more seats in parliament, and finished a very close second to the Conservatives. Through an alliance with the Greens, Ardern became prime minister leading a minority government. At 37, she was the youngest woman ever to become head of government in the world.
Various analysts argued at the time that what changed things so quickly and so exceptionally was above all Ardern’s personal ability to prove himself as an innovative, empathetic and reliable politician.
The 2017 election campaign also showed some of the difficulties Ardern was to face in her years as prime minister. As a woman, Ardern has always been subject to increased scrutiny from the press, criticism often motivated by sexism and gender stereotyping. When she was appointed leader of the Labor Party in 2017, in one of the very first press conferences immediately following her appointment she was asked if she intended to have children. She replied: “It is completely unacceptable in 2017 to think that women should answer such a question in the workplace.”
Ardern and her partner later had a daughter in June 2018. Ardern became the second political leader in modern history to give birth while in office (after Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990). A few months later, the photos of Ardern nursing her daughter Snow at the United Nations General Assembly in New York became exceptionally famous. It was the first time that a head of government attended the General Assembly together with his newborn son.
Ardern also became known and appreciated for the very decisive way in which she handled the numerous crises that New Zealand had to face during the years of her government. After the Christchurch massacre in March 2019, considered the largest mass murder in New Zealand history, Ardern in just a few months passed a law banning the sale and use of semi-automatic weapons. A few months later she was also appreciated for the great closeness reaction she had with the victims of the great eruption of the White Island volcano, which caused 22 deaths and many injuries.
In the first years of government, both New Zealand and international media spoke of “Jacindamania”, that is, of the great attention and admiration that Ardern managed to arouse both in New Zealand and abroad. In the early days of her first government, Labor’s support grew very substantially, and Ardern quickly became one of the most famous political leaders in the world.
The careful management of the coronavirus pandemic by the Ardern government, which decided to close the islands of New Zealand from practically any external contact and implement a very tough policy of lockdown and restrictive measures, was much praised in the early days, because it allowed the country to avoid the great waves of infections that affected Europe and the United States, among others. In the October 2020 elections, Ardern’s Labor Party won a landslide victory and an outright majority in the New Zealand parliament, which was also the most inclusive parliament ever in the country’s history. At the time, 58 percent of New Zealanders said they liked Ardern’s work.
But starting from 2021, while the reopenings began in the rest of the world, the government’s policies to combat the pandemic gradually became more controversial: still at the beginning of 2022 the restrictions were very harsh in New Zealand, to the point that there were large protests against the government, even violent ones.
Over his two terms in office, Ardern achieved notable legislative successes especially in terms of progressive labor rights and policies: he increased parental leave, increased sick days for workers, raised the minimum wage by 30 percent, made it legal euthanasia (thanks to a referendum). However, you have not managed to resolve some of the structural inequalities that afflict New Zealand society, starting with the serious housing crisis due to the excessive cost of houses. Progress on the issue of climate change has also been modest.
In recent months, legislative difficulties and some controversies have significantly reduced Ardern’s approval rating, which has a 34 percent approval rate by New Zealanders: it remains the most popular policy in the country.
Abroad, however, the admiration for Ardern has never really diminished, also thanks to various moments that have become famous, celebrated and viral: some had great political importance, others became known more than anything else for the personality and Ardern’s charisma. After the Christchurch massacre, speaking in parliament, Ardern refused, for example, to pronounce the name of the bomber, a white supremacist who by killing 51 people in an armed attack on a mosque and an Islamic center hoped to give notoriety to his cause.
Images of hugs to rescuers after the eruption of the White Island volcano also circulated a lot.
In 2020, an earthquake occurred while Ardern was giving an interview on live TV, and she didn’t flinch despite the tremors.
She was also the first minister in New Zealand history to participate in a Pride parade.
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