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New Zealand PM Ardern announces shock resignation

By Chris Foley/ AFP Published Jan 20, 2023 3:43 pm

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a global figurehead of progressive politics, shocked the country Thursday by announcing she would resign from office in a matter of weeks.

The 42-year-old—who steered the country through natural disasters, the Covid pandemic, and its worst-ever terror attack—said she no longer had "enough in the tank". 

"I am human. We give as much as we can for as long as we can and then it's time. And for me, it's time," she said at a meeting of members of her Labour Party. 

Ardern said she would step down no later than February 7, less than three years after winning a landslide election to secure her second term in office. 

Since that 2020 peak of "Jacindamania", Ardern's government has struggled— its popularity hampered by soaring inflation, a looming recession, and a resurgent conservative opposition. 

"I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging," Ardern said. "You cannot and should not do it unless you have a full tank, plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges." 

Ardern won international acclaim for her empathetic handling of the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre, in which 51 Muslim worshippers were killed and another 40 wounded. 

Later that year she was praised for her decisive leadership during the fatal White Island (also known as Whakaari) volcano eruption.

On Thursday she cited her government's actions on housing affordability, climate change, and child poverty as further sources of pride. 

"And we've done that while respondng to some of the biggest threats to the health and economic wellbeing of our nation arguably since World War II," Ardern said. 

There was a perception that Ardern, who was featured on the covers of British Vogue and Time magazine, was more popular abroad than she was at home. At her peak she was a domestic force, but her government has been steadily sliding in the polls over the last year. 

"It's about time. She's wrecked the economy and food prices have skyrocketed," said Esther Hedges from Cambridge on New Zealand's north island. "I'm not happy with her and I don't know anyone who is," the 65-year-old added. 

Christina Sayer, 38, said Ardern was "the best prime minister we have had". 

"I like the type of person she is and she cares about people. I'm sorry to see her go." 

The stress of the job has been evident, with Ardern showing a rare lapse of poise last month when she was unwittingly caught calling an opposition politician an "arrogant prick".

New Zealand actor and Hollywood veteran Sam Neill said Ardern was frequently targeted by social media "bullies". 

"She deserved so much better," he said in an online statement.

A new leader

New Zealand will choose its next prime minister in a general election held on October 14, Ardern announced. She said she would continue to serve as an MP until then.

Her departure leaves a void at the top of the Labour party, with her deputy Grant Robertson swiftly ruling out a tilt at the leadership. 

Although recent polls indicate a center-right coalition will likely win the election, Ardern said that was not the reason for her resignation. 

"I am not leaving because I believe we cannot win the next election, but because I believe we can and will," she said. 

"I am leaving because with such a privileged job comes a big responsibility. The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead— and also when you're not." 

Ardern was the second prime minister in the world to give birth while in office, after Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto in 1990. 

She said she was looking forward to spending more time with her daughter Neve, who is due to start school later this year, and finally getting married to her partner, TV personality Clarke Gayford.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese led international tributes to Ardern, saying she had "shown the world how to lead with intellect and strength".

"She has demonstrated that empathy and insight are powerful leadership qualities," Albanese said.

The official spokesman for Rishi Sunak said the British leader was "grateful to Prime Minister Ardern and for her friendship and support during his premiership".

"The work between our two countries defending democratic values and supporting Ukraine has been vital in recent months and years," he added.

White House spokeswoman Olivia Dalton said President Joe Biden and the United States "are grateful to Prime Minister Ardern for her leadership and advancing a free and open Indo Pacific and for her efforts to strengthen the United States and the New Zealand partnership."