How New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern Went from Pandemic Hero to Political Casualty
‘s tough response to the Covid-19 pandemic catapulted her party to a historic election landslide in late 2020. But about a year later, her popularity began to wane.
New Zealand’s strict border closure, designed to keep out the virus, was hurting tourism businesses, educational institutions and other sectors that relied on visitors, foreign students and workers from overseas. Auckland, the country’s biggest city, was still locked down for several months near the end of 2021. New Zealanders were frustrated that their bigger neighbor, Australia, appeared to be reopening faster.
Support for Ms. Ardern, who said this week she would resign as prime minister, eroded further in 2022. Voters became concerned about the economy in New Zealand, which like many nations is experiencing elevated inflation, high energy costs, supply-chain bottlenecks and labor shortages. In a poll released last month by research firm Roy Morgan, 37.5% of voters supported Ms. Ardern’s Labour government, the lowest since June 2017, before she became party leader.
“A lot of the world was opening up, but New Zealand stayed closed, and that’s the point when the polls started to turn against her,” said
a poll manager at Roy Morgan. “She got the pandemic right, until the end.”
There was another warning sign for Ms. Ardern: A special election for an open parliamentary seat went to the opposition in December. Ms. Ardern said the election had low turnout, though political analysts called it a bellwether seat.
Ms. Ardern’s resignation, which surprised some of her supporters, shows how incumbents who were widely praised for their early pandemic response are now finding it difficult to pivot to meet the challenges of the post-Covid world. After more than five years as prime minister, Ms. Ardern said she lacked the energy to continue and that others were better suited to take the country forward. When asked whether her personal popularity affected her decision, Ms. Ardern said it was entirely based on whether she could commit to the job for another few years.
“Politicians are human,” said Ms. Ardern. “We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time.”
Ms. Ardern has defended her government’s handling of the pandemic and the economy. New Zealand’s per capita death rates from Covid-19 are lower than many other developed countries. To address inflation, her government temporarily cut fuel taxes and rolled out a “cost-of-living payment” to low- and middle-income earners. The central bank, meanwhile, has been raising rates aggressively to bring prices under control.
Ms. Ardern, a 42-year-old who gave birth while in office, was a fresh face when elected prime minister in 2017 and ran on a platform to make housing more affordable while creating more jobs for young New Zealanders. She quickly gained international prominence, and at times appeared on late-night U.S. talk shows.
After the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, which killed more than 50 people, Ms. Ardern wore a hijab, a traditional Muslim head covering, when visiting with the grieving community and said, “We are one.” On Thursday, she said she wanted to be remembered as someone who always tried to be kind.
But she had a polarizing reputation at home. Some New Zealanders were dismayed at how difficult it was to return to the country during the pandemic, as slots were limited in a government-run quarantine system. Her stance on vaccines prompted a weekslong protest outside Parliament by opponents of vaccine mandates. Efforts to give indigenous Māori more governing authority have been controversial. And critics say she didn’t fully deliver on promises to improve housing, that government spending during the pandemic has exacerbated inflation and that there has been a recent uptick in crime.
Ms. Ardern remains the most preferred choice for prime minister, according to recent polls. But National Party leader
‘s popularity has grown. Mr. Luxon is a former chief executive of
Air New Zealand Ltd.
, the country’s flag carrier. That business background could appeal to voters given New Zealand’s economic challenges.
a 51-year-old who is a manager at a coffee business, said Ms. Ardern did well during the pandemic’s first six to eight months, as it was a disaster situation. But he said people started losing their livelihoods as restrictions wore on and that people he knows are worried about the economy and repayment costs of their home loans.
“I was speaking to my colleagues at my job today and they all said, ‘Thank God Jacinda’s gone,’” said Mr. Croad, who plans to vote for the National Party in October’s national election.
a 38-year-old who bought a home with her partner several years ago, said she doesn’t blame Ms. Ardern for the rising cost of living given it is a worldwide problem. Ms. Howe, who works in business intelligence, said she supported Ms. Ardern’s pandemic response, noting that closing the borders allowed time for people to get vaccinated, keeping deaths low.
“We’re really losing one of the best leaders we’ve ever had,” said Ms. Howe, who supports other policies of Ms. Ardern’s government such as rebates for electric cars and bans on single-use plastics. “It’s been both heartwarming and frustrating to see the rest of the world appreciate Jacinda for all she has achieved, because locally people don’t see it.”
The multitude of crises that emerged during Ms. Ardern’s tenure diverted time and resources that she could have used to further her policy agenda, said
a former minister in a previous Labour government. Also among them was the volcano eruption on White Island, also known as Whakaari, which killed 22 people in late 2019.
They “had to pivot themselves to being a disaster management government,” he said.
In one episode last month, Ms. Ardern was caught on a hot mic using vulgar language to refer to a rival politician in Parliament. Ms. Ardern apologized and, together with her rival, auctioned off a signed copy of the parliamentary transcript to raise money for charity. She called the incident a faux pas.
Ms. Ardern’s supporters said they admire her for staying in the job so long considering she was subject to numerous threats, some of which were prosecuted in the court system.
“She showed there can be a different kind of political leadership, where you lead with compassion and grace and dignity,” said
50, a deputy principal at a girls’ school. “I had more than a few people message me saying they shed a couple of tears yesterday, and that’s very unusual for a political leader.”
Write to Mike Cherney at email@example.com
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8