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Published on Feb 07, 2023
Jacinda Ardern steps down as the prime minister of New Zealand, leaving behind a legacy of strong leadership
Jacinda Ardern: One woman, many legacies After six years in office, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation in mid-January, saying that she “no longer had enough in the tank” for the job and that “it’s time”. Ardern’s announcement reflected her policies and their subsequent global reception, with many praising her candid assessment of life in politics and choosing to step down on account of her mental health. However, it also brought attention to, if only briefly, the challenges female leaders face in office—Ardern met an increased amount of violent threats in her last year in office, and domestically, the approval ratings of both Ardern and her party were at an all-time low.
Ardern’s announcement reflected her policies and their subsequent global reception, with many praising her candid assessment of life in politics and choosing to step down on account of her mental health.
Elected as the youngest female head of government globally, Jacinda’s time in office was a historical one for female leaders. While New Zealand can be seen as a progressive society, Arden was the third woman to assume this role. In the small club of female leaders, Jacinda broke the typical template associated with these women who shed femininity for acceptability. She gave birth while in office (second only to Benazir Bhutto), used fashion and makeup to her benefit rather than against her (and eschewed the “male uniform”). For many, Ardern showed that in politics,it is not always a either-or situation and – that women could possibly have it all. Coming from a career in communications (including working for former Prime Minister Helen Clark), she prioritised clear communication and symbolism and embraced being kind, being emphatic, and showing emotions.

Ardern’s legacy

It can’t be said that Arden’s time in office was all smooth sailing and it is perhaps her reaction to these events (or lack thereof) which is used to describe her best. Domestically, Prime Minister Arden dealt with growing social inequality in New Zealand, including a housing crisis and child poverty. But internationally, two events defined Jacinda’s time in office—the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is crucial to remember that Ardern came to office in the ‘Age of the Strongman’, and regularly went against or stood for the diametrically opposite views that many strongmen held—be it climate change, religious communities, or the idea of democracy. For many, seeing Ardern as the alternative to many of their own leaders created a phenomenon known as “Jacindamania” globally. She was the politician many liked, she was a prime minister many wanted.
Domestically, Prime Minister Arden dealt with growing social inequality in New Zealand, including a housing crisis and child poverty.
In 2019, following the Christchurch mosque shootings where a lone gunman fired upon worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 511 and injuring 40, Ardern was pushed into global recognition for her empathetic support to the survivors of the incident, while respecting religious practices, and her quick response to gun violence where she proposed and passed gun legislation including a ban on semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles. Describing the incident as “One of New Zealand’s darkest days”, Ardern also never mentioned the name of the shooter—with large parts of the New Zealand press following suit, and brought together global tech companies and the French Government to create what was the Christchurch Call—an action plan that committed governments, international organisations, and internet players to take on a series of measures to take action against terrorist and extremist content online and to end the exploitation of the internet by terrorist actors. Today, the call brings together over 130 governments, online service providers, and civil society organisations to work together to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. In early 2020, Ardern led New Zealand to become one of the first countries to shut borders as a barrier to preventing the spread of the virus. Implementing a strict lock-down Zero-COVID policy that ran over 18 months, New Zealand averaged fewer than five COVID cases in any week. Using her past experience in communications, Ardern spoke to New Zealand from her home, promoting staying at home and vaccinations when vaccines were made available. With New Zealand being one of the first countries to impose restrictions, and one of the last to take them away, growing domestic resentment did begin to emerge. Globally, while she received international recognition for her successful management of the pandemic, including for a special emergency virtual summit in July 2021, there was growing resentment about long quarantines and stringent re-entry policies, India was specifically affected by this.
With New Zealand being one of the first countries to impose restrictions, and one of the last to take them away, growing domestic resentment did begin to emerge.
Unfortunately, a focus on India was missing in Ardern’s foreign policy. While India-New Zealand relations have never been prominent, with India preferring neighbour Australia, China’s growing presence in the Indo-Pacific did lead to a belief that this could be an opportunity for India-New Zealand ties. In October 2022, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar visited New Zealand, meeting PM Ardern, his counterpart Nanaia Mahuta and leader of Opposition Christopher Luxon–known to be bullish on India. The first visit by an Indian Minister in over 20 years was marked by Jaishankar’s criticism of New Zealand’s unwillingness to renew visas for Indian students who left New Zealand during the pandemic, asking New Zealand to take a “sympathetic view”. His observation that “there is a larger world out there”, reflected the underwhelming nature of the relationship. In leaving, Jacinda Ardern leaves behind a legacy that defies what is expected of politicians – irrespective of gender. While there are many perspectives to her legacy—some consider her the definitive politician of her time whereas others see her as one of the many products of the woke age— it is undoubtedly clear which legacy Jacinda would like to be remembered by – “I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused”, she said while announcing her resignation.
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Contributor

Sitara Srinivas

Sitara Srinivas

Sitara Srinivas was a Junior Fellow with ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. She focuses on soft power and the Women Peace and Security Agenda.

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