Her 5½ years as leader were among the most challenging in the country’s modern history. She won praise for her calm stewardship of the Pacific nation through major events including the 2019 terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques, a volcanic eruption and the coronavirus pandemic.
More recently, however, domestic sentiment toward her government has soured as the island nation emerges from a long period of pandemic isolation and faces the prospect of a recession. She was also subjected to repeated misogynistic abuse, which escalated during the pandemic.
Here are some of the major events that contributed to the “Jacindamania” phenomenon.
The Christchurch terrorist attack
In March 2019, a gunman killed more than 50 people and injured dozens in attacks at two mosques in the southern city of Christchurch. The event shocked New Zealanders, who had not previously experienced deadly violence on such a scale.
A day after the attacks, she wore a Muslim-style headscarf known as a hijab as she visited the country’s refugee and Muslim community, tearfully telling them that the whole country was “united in grief.” She gained the respect of many Muslims at home and abroad for her empathy, and her refusal to speak the name of the attacker, who had shared white-supremacist views online and live-streamed the slaughter on Facebook.
“I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless,” she told Parliament at the time.
Expanding gun control
Ardern spearheaded legislation to ban military-style rifles just six days after the attack. “On 15 March, our history changed forever. Now, our laws will, too,” Ardern said at the time.
Tens of thousands of weapons and hundreds of thousands of illegal gun parts were surrendered during a months-long gun amnesty and buyback program. Critics of the program said the number of firearms collected might be a small fraction of the illegal guns in the county because New Zealand did not have a gun registry until after the attacks. A later buyback reportedly cost more to administer than was paid out to gun owners.
‘Christchurch Call’ to regulate social media
Another response to the attacks was the “Christchurch Call” — a global initiative led by Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron to urge tech giants and other governments to commit to combating the spread of extremism on social media.
Leaders from around the globe signed on to the voluntary document — presented on the sidelines of a Group of Seven gathering of industrialized nations in Paris in May 2019 — as did Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, which pledged to work more closely with one another and governments to try to keep their sites from being used for radical recruitment.
Elevating the status of female leaders
Ardern became New Zealand’s youngest leader in more than 150 years when she was elected to office in 2017 at the age of 37. 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.
After a rare landslide election victory in 2020, Ardern formed the most diverse government in New Zealand’s history, with more members of Parliament than ever who are women, people of color, LGBTQ and Indigenous. Last year, New Zealand became the first advanced industrialized democracy to have a majority-female legislature.
She faced frequent sexism throughout her tenure: A television reporter once asked about her baby’s conception, and at a meeting with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin in Auckland in November, a male reporter suggested they were meeting only because they were similar in age. Ardern was also subjected to increasingly heated gendered abuse, including death threats.
During a December interview with local media, the premier acknowledged a “rawness” to public sentiment that did not exist before the pandemic, but she expressed hope that it would not be permanent.
Managing the coronavirus pandemic
Ardern was lauded globally for her leadership during the coronavirus pandemic. She 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. The country of about 5 million people has recorded fewer than 2,500 covid-19 fatalities. It has the lowest covid-related death rate in the Western world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
There has been domestic criticism, both over the slow pace of vaccine rollout — which delayed the reopening of borders and the flow of migrant workers — and, on the other hand, over the government’s immunization mandates. Protesters occupied Parliament grounds and blocked streets in the capital, Wellington, for more than three weeks last year, in imitation of the “Freedom Convoy” in Canada. Ardern showed flashes of anger as she said authorities could no longer tolerate weeks of “hostility, resistance and violence” from some of the protesters, especially as coronavirus infections were soaring to record levels in the nation at the time.
Michael E. Miller in Sydney and Anna Fifield in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.