The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jacinda Ardern is right to leave office — before voters force her out

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives at the War Memorial Centre in Napier, New Zealand, on Thursday to announce her resignation. (Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Jacinda Ardern’s announcement that she would resign as New Zealand’s prime minister and leave Parliament might have surprised her many fans globally. But a closer look at the country’s politics shows that she likely made the wise decision to get on with her life before the voters kicked her out.

Ardern burst onto the political scene in 2017 when she took over leadership of her Labour Party just months before the next election. Labour had been trailing the governing center-right National Party by about 20 points, but the charismatic 37-year-old captivated the nation, and “Jacindamania” pushed her party upward. Labour finished second in the election, and she outmaneuvered the Nationals to form a three-party coalition government with the Greens and the populist New Zealand First party.

The world started to take notice after her strong, empathetic response to the tragic 2019 terrorist shootings in Christchurch. Her popularity soared, and her initially successful response in 2020 to the covid-19 pandemic pushed it into the political stratosphere. Her favorability rating hit 80 percent, according to the Taxpayers’ Union Curia poll. It remained unusually high as Kiwis went to the polls that fall. Labour won an absolute majority in Parliament, the first time that had happened since New Zealand adopted its mixed-member proportional voting scheme in the 1990s.

Her star started to fade shortly after. She failed to put New Zealand into the first tranche of nations to get the new coronavirus vaccines, requiring the country to lock down again as the United States and Europe were beginning to open up. The Auckland region, home to about a third of the country’s population, remained in some form of lockdown for more than three months. Around the time it finally did reopen, Ardern’s favorability rating was down to about 50 percent.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

Since then, she has struggled with the challenge of inflation that is bedeviling all world leaders. Inflation rose steadily throughout the year, surpassing 7 percent by September. New Zealand, which releases overall inflation figures on a quarterly basis, has not yet published statistics for the fourth quarter of 2022. But its monthly food inflation rate is 11.3 percent, the highest in more than 30 years.

Staying put would also force Ardern to explain her failure to implement some of Labour’s key promises. David Farrar, a center-right political commentator and pollster in New Zealand, told me that Labour sought in 2017 to relieve a housing crunch by building 100,000 new homes within 10 years. The plan, known as KiwiBuild, never really got off the ground. The ambitious target was scrapped by 2019, and by May 2022, only about 1,300 homes had been finished. Ardern’s promise of a light-rail system to relieve Auckland’s traffic congestion is also years behind schedule.

Jennifer Rubin

counterpointDistinguished pol of the week: Jacinda Ardern was the icon democracy needed

It should be no surprise, then, that her favorability ratings and her party’s standings in the polls have fallen sharply. The most recent Taxpayers’ Union Curia poll found her in net negative territory for the first time since she became leader. It also confirmed what most other polls have been showing for months: Labour trails National by a significant margin. When both parties’ potential coalition partners are factored in, the conservative National-ACT alliance holds a potential 63-55 seat lead.

Ardern therefore had to decide whether she wanted to lead her party into a tough reelection campaign in which the odds of winning were against her. And if even she did win, her personal prospects would be bleak. Labour would likely need to form another three-party coalition, this time with the Greens and the Maori Party. She would then need to guide this unwieldy coalition through a three-year parliamentary term against a National Party revitalized by its new leader, former Air New Zealand executive Christopher Luxon. Her days of political stardom would likely fade into political grind.

Stepping aside now gives her party the opportunity to select a new leader well before the Oct. 14 election. Leaving on her own terms also preserves her political reputation while once more garnering international sympathy. Highly paid speeches and remunerative opportunities that don’t require 80-hour workweeks surely await her.

There are two lessons to take away from this: First, all politicians rise and fall based on the events they face in office. Farrar argues that the Christchurch massacre and the pandemic’s onset played to Ardern’s strengths: decisiveness and empathy. Managing details of a lengthy pandemic response and inflation proved more challenging.

Second, as Ardern herself noted, politicians are human, too. They sacrifice a lot in terms of family life and money, with the burdens increasing dramatically the higher they rise. She had already gained as much public esteem and influence as she was ever likely to attain. Leaving now lets her rebalance her life while she still can — just in time for her 4-year-old daughter to start school.

Ardern’s fans will likely always remember her tenure as a Kiwi version of President John F. Kennedy’s Camelot. Kiwis will likely be grateful for her service, and happy to turn to a new government with less star power and more managerial skills.