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Jacinda Ardern's resignation: New Zealand PM shot to 'rock star' status but lost ground on bread-and-butter issues

SINGAPORE — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement on Thursday (Jan 19) that she will resign has shocked many of her overseas fans who saw her as a "rock star" politician, youthful, dynamic, modern and able to show empathy and poise in crises such as a deadly terrorist attack in Christchurch.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a photo taken in London, England in July 2022.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a photo taken in London, England in July 2022.

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  • In a shock move, Ms Jacinda Ardern announced that she will be stepping down as New Zealand's prime minister 
  • She said that she "no longer has enough in the tank" to do the job justice
  • Ms Ardern is known for her progressive politics and received international praise for the way she handled the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack in Christchurch and the Covid-19 pandemic
  • The youthful PM won fans around the world for her modern, empathetic approach to the job
  • But she saw faltering support as domestic issues such as the high cost of living and inflation affected the lives of ordinary citizens

SINGAPORE — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement on Thursday (Jan 19) that she will resign has shocked many of her overseas fans who saw her as a "rock star" politician: Youthful, dynamic, modern and able to show empathy and poise in crises such as a deadly terrorist attack in Christchurch.

After she became the youngest New Zealand head of government since 1856, at age 37, Ms Ardern then became only the second national leader in the world ever to give birth in office, after Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto in 1990.

Her modern approach, such as casual Facebook chats from home and nursing her newborn baby, resonated with Kiwis who had generally known only more conventional prime ministers, despite already having had two women as leaders.

Ms Ardern, now aged 42 and still very youthful for a politician, will step down from her position by Feb 7 and New Zealand’s Labour Party Members of Parliament (MPs) will vote to find her replacement this Sunday. 

I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in annoucing she will resign

While announcing her upcoming resignation on Thursday, Ms Ardern choked up with emotion and said that her term in office has been the most fulfilling five-and-a-half years of her life. 

“But it’s also had its challenges… I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said. 

In her term as the 40th prime minister of the country, Ms Ardern had steered the country through natural disasters such as the fatal White island volcano eruption, a deadly terrorist attack and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

ARDERN’S LEADERSHIP 

Ms Ardern, who has been a Labour Party supporter since she was 17, became an elected MP in 2008. 

Nine years later in March 2017, she was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party at the age of 37 — then became the youngest person to lead the party and later went on to claim the country’s top job in October that same year. 

Known for her progressive stance on a range of issues, her leadership was met with fervent admiration from many members of the public, a phenomenon dubbed “Jacindamania”. 

Raised a Mormon, she left the church because of its stance against homosexuality.

Not only did she as a leader stand firmly against bigotry but demonstrated by action what genuine compassion and solidarity with victims represents.
Dr Omer Ali Saifudeen, senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences

Dr Omer Ali Saifudeen, a senior lecturer at the School of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences in the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said that Ms Ardern will always be remembered for her conduct after the deadly 2019 Christchurch attacks on mosques that left 51 dead.

In her actions and statements at the time, she stood for inclusivity and embracing diversity within a nation, he said. Ms Ardern famously wore a headscarf to show solidarity with the nation's Muslims.

“Not only did she as a leader stand firmly against bigotry but demonstrated by action what genuine compassion and solidarity with victims represents,” he added. 

Dr Omer noted that she had taken active steps to push for tangible changes to tackle extremism with what became known as the Christchurch Call to Action.

This entailed social media companies and governments working on tangible steps to counter online extremist propaganda. 

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (centre) gesturing as she departed after a gathering for congregational prayers and two minutes of silence for victims of the twin mosque massacre, in Christchurch in March 2019.

Another instance where Ms Ardern demonstrated inclusivity was in 2019, when she reversed a rule that restricted refugees from Middle Eastern and African nations unless they could prove family ties in New Zealand. 

At a time when the world was becoming more polarised and there was an increasing call for borders to become tightened in the United States and Europe, she increased New Zealand’s refugee quota, Dr Omer said. 

She also received praise for the way the country handled the Covid-19 pandemic, implementing lockdowns and border closures early in order to control the virus as quickly as possible. 

NEW ZEALAND AND SINGAPORE 

While Ms Ardern was serving in office, New Zealand and Singapore shared a close relationship, with the Kiwi leader visiting the island-state twice — once in 2019 and again in 2022 as the dust from the global pandemic settled. 

In a Facebook message on Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hailed Ms Ardern as a "steadfast friend to Singapore" after expressing his surprise that she is leaving her post.

On her first visit, Ms Ardern and Mr Lee established the Singapore-New Zealand Enhanced Partnership, which aimed to help both countries intensify collaboration in areas such as trade, science and security. 

During her second visit, Ms Ardern and Mr Lee agreed to launch an additional pillar on "climate change and green economy" under the partnership. 

Ms Ardern said that given the existential threat posed by climate change, it is "fitting" that the two countries collaborate in this area, such as low carbon technology and sustainable aviation. 

She also thanked Mr Lee and expressed her appreciation for the care shown to New Zealanders living in Singapore during the pandemic. 

While reflecting on the cooperation between the two countries over the past few years, Ms Ardern added: "They say that during tough times, you are reminded who your friends are, and it is clear that Singapore is a very close friend."

DECLINING POPULARITY 

After scraping in as prime minister in 2017 under New Zealand's complex electoral system, which often involves cross-party deals and alliances in order to form government, Ms Ardern achieved history three years later.

Her party notched up a landslide victory during the 2020 general elections, and became the first party since the current electoral system was introduced in 1993 to achieve power in its own right, without the need for coalition partners.

Despite that heady success, and general approval of her handling of the pandemic, Ms Ardern’s popularity saw a steady decline before plummeting last year. 

Bloomberg reported that a 2022 poll by 1News/Kantar saw public support for the Labour Party at about 33 per cent, the lowest during Ms Ardern’s leadership since she first took over in 2017. 

Key factors driving down support for her administration include the high cost of living and high interest rates, which are ills afflicting many nations around the world.

In November 2022, the country's reserve bank forecasted that the country will likely enter recession in 2023 while inflation is at a 30-year-high of 7.2 per cent, British paper Guardian reported. 

Another factor affecting her approval was that voters in the country were also concerned over crime levels.

Although Ms Ardern remained the country’s most-preferred prime minister, on 29 per cent to the New Zealand National Party leader Christopher Luxon’s 23 per cent, her rating has halved from more than 60 per cent in 2020, Bloomberg reported. 

Ms Ardern has seen her fair share of criticism during her term in office, with critics accusing her of not making good on her campaign promises to make life better for Kiwis at times of rising prices for food, fuel and rent. 

This was especially so last year after the country emerged from Covid-19 and Ms Ardern directed resources to the policy projects delayed by the pandemic, though New Zealanders' focus was more on bread-and-butter issues such as rising prices. 

Dr Greaves, a political scientist from the University of Auckland told Guardian that few of these reforms were uncontroversial but the problem lay in the fact that the government had struggled to communicate the purpose of the projects. 

“It should be fairly easy to sell something like needing to rework the water infrastructure,” she said. “We’ve seen them being quite crunched for time because of their policy schedule... but (those reforms) haven’t really been sold to the public in a way where they can see why it’s necessary." 

On how her resignation may cause ripples in the New Zealand government, Dr Omer said that there are enough people within the ranks of the Labour Party to replace her. 

"But the danger remains that potential instability in the Labour Party’s ranks following her departure  might create an opening that conservative voices and a salient alternative-right in New Zealand could capitalise on to amplify their position," he said. 

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New Zealand Jacinda Ardern Politics

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