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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern resigns ahead of election

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern resigned on Jan. 19 after a two-term tenure and ahead of national elections later this year. (Video: Reuters)
7 min

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who won international praise for her leadership style during the coronavirus pandemic, announced her resignation Thursday ahead of national elections later this year.

“I have given my absolute all,” Ardern, 42, said at an emotional news conference. “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.”

The unexpected announcement — which stunned supporters and political insiders — signaled an abrupt end to the five-year tenure of a prime minister whose empathetic brand of governance during several crises elevated her to the global stage, even as her popularity recently began to slip behind the main conservative opposition at home.

Ardern said she would step down by Feb. 7. Lawmakers representing her ruling center-left Labour Party will vote Sunday on a new leader, who will lead the party to a national election Oct. 14.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who won global praise for her leadership during covid and other crises, resigned unexpectedly Jan. 19. (Video: Neeti Upadhye, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

“It’s definitely a shock,” said Jennifer Curtin, professor of politics at the University of Auckland. “I think today everybody is going, ‘Gosh, she’s really going to go? And quite soon.’ ”

Political commentator Josie Pagani said there had been speculation Ardern would step down at the end of 2022. But when the new year began without an announcement, people assumed she would continue until the election.

The news came as such a surprise that Ardern had to dismiss suggestions that she was trying to get ahead of a scandal by resigning or that she was stepping down because her party has been trailing in recent voter polls.

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Ardern told reporters that she had discussed the decision with only a few people and that she hadn’t even told her 4-year-old daughter yet.

“Four-year-olds are chatty,” Ardern said. “I couldn’t run the risk.”

Ardern became New Zealand’s youngest leader in more than 150 years when she was elected to office in 2017. Her win was viewed around the world as an antidote to the populist politics of the time, and global interest grew when, in 2018, she became the second world leader in modern times to have a baby in office. (Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was the first.) Ardern later took her 3-month-old daughter to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

“New Zealanders take huge pride in seeing any leader stand on the world stage and be respected, and no one has done it quite as well as Jacinda,” said Pagani.

Ardern won praise for her calm stewardship of the Pacific nation through a number of major events, including the coronavirus pandemic, a volcanic eruption and the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack. She spearheaded legislation to ban military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles just six days after the attack, in which more than 50 people were killed.

She also acted quickly to close her country’s borders in March 2020. That decision, coupled with stringent quarantine requirements for returning New Zealanders and snap lockdowns, kept her country largely covid-free until early last year. It helped her secure a rare landslide reelection in 2020. That year, the Atlantic magazine described her as possibly the “most effective leader on the planet.”

More recently, however, local sentiment toward her administration has soured as the island nation emerges from a long period of pandemic isolation. In March, anti-government protests outside Parliament turned violent when demonstrators hurled bricks and set fire to their tents. Dozens were arrested. Personal threats against Ardern nearly tripled in recent years, according to police, and the prime minister at times was a target of misogynistic abuse.

Ardern’s plans to tax agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, revise the country’s water system and give more power to Maori groups also served to consolidate the opposition, Curtin said.

New Zealand is also grappling with many of the pressures seen elsewhere: inflation, rising interest rates and housing affordability issues. Localized problems, such as raids on jewelry stores and corner-store robberies — at least one of them deadly — have additionally led to perceptions among some voters that her administration is soft on crime.

Last month, Ardern suffered a rare lapse in composure in Parliament and was caught on a hot mic referring to a rival lawmaker using a pejorative word. (An official transcript of the remarks, in which Ardern compared him to a part of the male anatomy, was signed by Ardern and the lawmaker in question and later auctioned for charity.)

By stepping down now, Ardern is giving her Labour successor about nine months in office before the election. Behind in the polls to the center-right National Party, Labour might choose someone more combative than Ardern, Curtin said.

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“Maybe Labour needs to have somebody in the leadership who has campaigned in a different kind of way, to be able to be harder-hitting,” Curtin said, adding that Education Minister Chris Hipkins might be an option.

A new leader would also allow Labour to “reset away from the perception” that it is too focused on identity issues and other concerns of urban liberals, Pagani said.

The election will probably center on the economy and the cost of living, Pagani and Curtin agreed. With one poll showing Ardern facing negative favorability ratings for the first time, Labour might fare better now that she is stepping down, they said.

Ardern had sought to walk a foreign policy tightrope between the United States — her country’s most important security partner — and China, which is New Zealand’s largest trading partner. But she admitted in 2021 that “differences” between her country and China were becoming “harder to reconcile.” That relationship will be a test for the next prime minister.

Opposition leader Christopher Luxon refused to say whether his National Party now faced better chances in October, though he praised Ardern’s effectiveness as an ambassador for the country on the global stage.

Ardern told reporters Thursday in the coastal city of Napier that she would continue to serve as a lawmaker until April and was looking forward to spending more time with her family. She and her partner, Clarke Gayford, had to cancel their wedding early last year because of the pandemic.

“Arguably, they’re the ones that have sacrificed the most out of all of us,” she said, before addressing her daughter and partner. “So to Neve, Mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year. And to Clarke, let’s finally get married.”

She also appeared to rebuff suggestions that she could take a senior position at the United Nations, saying her focus had been on serving her country and her party, not her career.

In another sign of Ardern’s international stature, tributes from foreign leaders quickly began to pour in on Thursday. Her Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, posted a picture of the two leaders on Twitter and thanked Ardern for her “empathic, compassionate, strong, and steady leadership over these past several years.”

“Jacinda Ardern has shown the world how to lead with intellect and strength,” wrote Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Leading New Zealand has “taken a lot out of me,” Ardern said. “You cannot and should not do the job unless you have a full tank, plus a bit in reserve for those unplanned and unexpected challenges that inevitably come along.”

New Zealand's ruling Labour Party appointed Chris Hipkins as the country's 41st prime minister on Jan. 22 after Jacinda Ardern's surprise resignation. (Video: Reuters)

Miller reported from Sydney. Frances Vinall in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.