At a time when ageing rockstars are embarking on seemingly endless farewell tours, and the US is contemplating a presidential election between two octogenarian men, the world’s most famous female political superstar will be out of office and out of parliament before her 43rd birthday in July.
At a news conference on the North Island, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the shock announcement that she is stepping down in a little over a fortnight’s time on 7 February.
In the meantime, the New Zealand Labour Party will choose a new leader. In April, there will be a by-election to replace Ms Ardern in her constituency in Mount Albert. Ms Ardern also announced that she was calling a general election for 14 October this year.
Ms Ardern’s five and a half years of political leadership and her manner of leaving it have been unique and will be the subject of comment for years to come.
Nonetheless, by this summer she will be out of politics and her future plans are vague beyond this message for her five-year-old daughter and her partner Clarke Gayford, a television presenter: “To Neve: Mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year. And to Clarke – let’s finally get married.”
Ms Ardern was not a record-breaker for her sex or age, either nationally or internationally. She is New Zealand’s third woman prime minister, following Jenny Shipley and the long-serving Helen Clark, who Ms Ardern worked for.
Yet Ms Ardern has been a star from the moment she emerged in 2017, aged just 37, as prime minister of a coalition government. Many people beyond New Zealand were caught up in “Jacindamania”, seeing this self-styled “progressive” and “feminist” as the antithesis to populist authoritarian men such as Donald Trump who were enjoying power around that time.
She was soon featured on the magazine covers of Vogue and Time magazines, not bad for a leader of a small country of five million people.
Ms Ardern bridled at comments which dwelt on her femininity. She slapped down reporters who suggested she was holding the first ever New Zealand bilateral with the Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin because they were both young women. She said: “I wonder whether or not anyone ever asked Barack Obama and John Key if they met because they were of similar age.”
A farmer publicly apologised after brandishing a placard at a protest calling her a “Pretty Communist”.
‘You can be kind, but strong’
Ms Ardern’s tearful news conference announcing her departure could scarcely have been less Trumpian. She explained her reasons bluntly: “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.”
She concluded her statement by thanking New Zealanders for giving her “the greatest role in my life. I hope in return I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused. That you can be your own kind of leader – one that knows when it’s time to go”.
Ms Ardern’s two terms in power have been action-packed, as she noted: “We encountered a… domestic terror event, a major natural disaster, a global pandemic, and an economic crisis.”
In March 2019 she united the nation after the shooting attack on two mosques in Christchurch which left 51 people dead.
She insisted that the name of the perpetrator should not be used, while she said of the Muslim victims: “They are us.”
In December of that year, she had an equally strong and inclusive message when 21 people, many foreign tourists, were killed when the Whakaari volcano erupted on White Island. The closed borders and lockdown she ordered during the COVID pandemic resulted in a comparatively low number of deaths, some 2,500, in New Zealand.
Her decisive and empathetic style of leadership served her well politically. In the 2020 election, her popularity converted her coalition with other parties into an unprecedented overall majority for Labour in New Zealand’s proportional representation system.
Perhaps New Zealand’s voters are now as exhausted as their prime minister. Opinion polls suggest Ms Ardern has dodged humiliation by stepping down now. At the upcoming general election, most observers expect her Labour party to lose office with the right-of-centre National Party to emerge victorious.
As elsewhere, inflation is running high in New Zealand. Ms Ardern admitted this week there have been challenges delivering her chosen domestic “agenda focused on housing, child poverty and climate change”.
Out of some 195 nations in the world, only around 17 have heads of government who are women. Well under 10%.
Ms Ardern was only the second female head of government, after the late Benazir Bhutto, to give birth while in office. At her joint appearance with Prime Minister Marin, Ms Ardern accepted that they had responsibility as female leaders to women facing “dire circumstances” in countries such as Iran, and that they stood “to make sure every woman and girl all across the world will have the same rights and the same opportunities as men”.
This is still not even the case in the Westminster parliament. Noting that only one in four Conservative MPs are women, Baroness Jenkin dismissed Boris Johnson’s boasted goal of 50:50 as “fine words but very little actual engagement”.
Encountering sexism in parliament
Ms Ardern will be missed by the Council of World Women Leaders since she was its most prominent member following the retirement of Angela Merkel. Like her counterpart in Australia, she encountered sexism in parliament from her opponents; unlike Julia Gillard, she did not need to make a celebrated speech attacking misogyny.
Instead, she apologised for branding the leader of ACT NZ “an arrogant prick” after he asked, “Can the prime minister give us an example of making a mistake, apologising for it properly and fixing it?”.
Ms Ardern’s qualities as a political leader are not unique to women, although they are most often found there. The same goes for the modesty with which she retreated from office: “I am human, politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.”
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In political terms, Ms Ardern could be described as something similar to a “Blairite”. In the Noughties, she even worked on his government’s policies in the Cabinet office in London. She never met Tony Blair then. When she did a few years later she challenged him over the invasion of Iraq.
Ms Ardern hopes to live to see New Zealand become a republic, but she attended the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II with her partner and their daughter, wearing a Maori cape.
Perhaps Jacinda Ardern will return to politics in a few years’ time, perhaps she will be offered some international office, perhaps she will not. Either way, she’s sure of a lasting place as a star in the political firmament. She may well have written her own epitaph already: “Someone who always tried to be kind”.