Ardern is on course to comfortably win a second term in elections Oct. 17, with her Labour Party holding a double-digit lead over conservative National in surveys. Yet her record is more complicated than her reputation suggests, and the surge in her domestic popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon that will be tested amid a deep recession and against circumstances unprecedented in living memory.
“There has always been a lot of goodwill toward Ardern at home, but much less than abroad,” said political analyst Josh Van Veen, noting that her personal support was below 40 percent late last year. “It looked as though she was on course to be a one-term prime minister. Then, covid-19 turned everyone’s world upside down.”
Indeed, crisis has defined Ardern’s premiership: a massacre of 51 Muslim worshipers by a white supremacist in Christchurch; a deadly volcano eruption; and the coronavirus pandemic. Each time, Ardern, 40, won plaudits for her actions — leading the nation in mourning and tightening gun laws, hugging first responders after the volcano disaster, and leading a pandemic response widely hailed as among the world’s most effective.
But Ardern’s progress has been limited on other goals, such as tackling a housing shortage and high rates of child poverty. Labour pledged to build 100,000 houses in a decade but dropped the target last year, having built 258 up to that point. Income inequality and levels of material hardship for children are little changed, official data show.
Meanwhile, defeating the virus has come at great cost: New Zealand’s economy shrank by 12.2 percent in the second quarter, nearly double the contraction in neighboring Australia.
The conditions worry Mark Adams, 57, a sheep and cattle farmer from Fairlie, on New Zealand’s South Island, who says he will not vote for Labour.
“Even the most grizzled farmer would concede she’s done a good job on many issues,” he said, citing Ardern’s handling of the pandemic. “Without healthy people, you don’t have an economy, but it’s not kumbaya either,” he added, saying he felt National was better placed to fight the recession.
More than six months of border restrictions have hammered tourism operators. “Pre-covid-19, tourism in New Zealand was a $112 million-per-day industry. We are already losing $47 million a day from [the absence of] international visitors,” said a spokesperson for Tourism Industry Aotearoa, quoting figures in New Zealand dollars. (The figures in U.S. dollars are $73.8 million and $30.9 million, respectively.)
Van Veen expects the recession to have a profound impact on the national psyche. “Most New Zealanders have never experienced genuine hardship before. That could be about to change,” he said.
Ardern’s office declined to comment on the election, saying she was focused on the coronavirus and would not consider international media requests.
A roller-coaster term
Ardern spent nine years as a lesser-known lawmaker before rising to national prominence in February 2017 when she won a by-election for Auckland’s Mount Albert seat. Within months, she was promoted to deputy and then leader of Labour. An inconclusive general election later that year led her to enter a sometimes-awkward ruling coalition with right-leaning populist partner New Zealand First and the left-wing Green Party.
New Zealanders do not directly elect the prime minister but vote for parties and local representatives. The share of seats allotted to a party is determined by its overall vote.
As prime minister, Ardern pledged to redress long-standing social issues, making waves by describing capitalism as a “blatant failure” from the perspective of poor New Zealanders. “What is the point of economic growth when we have some of the worst homelessness in the developed world?” she asked her interviewer.
Then, a major test came on March 15, 2019, when a gunman opened fire at two Christchurch mosques, shocking a nation unaccustomed to extremist violence.
Under the glare of the world’s media, Ardern led the mourning, showing solidarity with Muslims by wearing a headscarf as she consoled grieving relatives. Her subsequent changes to gun laws, including a ban on semiautomatic weapons, were approved within weeks with near-unanimous support.
“We feel deeply in our hearts what has happened to you. We feel grief. We feel injustice. We feel anger. And we share that with you,” she told members of the Muslim community.
Her empathy was again on display after the White Island volcano erupted last December, killing 21 people, and during the coronavirus pandemic, when her swift decision to institute a lockdown helped New Zealand beat back the virus. A second wave in August spurred a tightening of controls, but since then, the country has largely returned to normal.
As restrictions were imposed earlier this year, Ardern called on New Zealanders to “save lives by staying home” and later congratulated the “team of 5 million” for subduing the threat by observing the rules.
To many, Ardern represented something else: a counterpoint to the populism that has jolted the United States and Europe.
Indeed, Ardern has had an uneasy relationship with President Trump. When Trump said at a diplomatic dinner in 2017 that Ardern had “caused a lot of upset in her country,” Ardern retorted, “No one marched when I was elected.”
More recently, she rebuked Trump when he suggested New Zealand was struggling with its second virus outbreak, pointing out that her nation’s new cases, then averaging about nine a day, paled in comparison with the number in the United States. New Zealand’s virus fatality rate is 0.5 per 100,000 population, compared with 66 in the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
More than a pandemic
As the election nears, Labour has again promised higher minimum wages and extended sick-pay entitlements, building on measures to increase support to lower-income voters.
But some want greater action on entrenched problems that disproportionately affect New Zealand’s indigenous Maori community.
“I understand why she hasn’t been able to do more in her first term, but despite these dynamics, my people are still suffering, they are still more likely to be broke, imprisoned, to be discriminated against, to go hungry than other groups,” said Matthew Tukaki, executive director of the New Zealand Maori Council. “Nothing has really changed for us; this election can’t just be about covid.”
From the left, there has been criticism that Ardern has underwhelmed on climate change, despite banning new offshore oil and gas exploration.
“Deep-sea oil permits are still being handed out, and the increase in intensive farming practices is definitely a step in the wrong direction,” said Claire Dann, a neighbor of Adams in Fairlie.
And on foreign policy, Ardern has faced accusations of timidity in the face of China’s growing aggression, including evidence of malevolent actions by the Chinese Communist Party on New Zealand soil.
The election will be held in conjunction with two referendums, on whether to legalize marijuana and whether to allow euthanasia for the terminally ill. Ardern and most of her party have backed euthanasia, but she has declined to say where she stands on marijuana, despite admitting in a televised debate that she smoked the drug “a long time ago.”
On Sept. 9, Ardern relaunched her campaign — the election was postponed for four weeks because of the pandemic — with a message on Instagram posted from a van near her hometown of Morrinsville, where Ardern’s parents were babysitting her daughter.
“Have a beautiful day, wherever you are,” she said cheerily. Her performance during televised debates has been similarly upbeat and composed, despite a strong challenge from Judith Collins, the opposition leader.
Patrick Lee-Lo, 62, a small-business owner from Auckland, said he had not voted for Ardern because she was “too inexperienced in business,” but he was still impressed, particularly by her “love, kindness and empathy” after the Christchurch attacks.
“One thing covid has taught me, and the world, is you can no longer take things for granted,” he said. “Right now, most decent people are likely to respond to those leaders who make them feel cared about.”