New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was praised around the world for her handling of the nation’s worst mass shooting and the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, said Thursday she was leaving office.
Ardern was facing mounting political pressures at home and a level of vitriol from some that hadn’t been experienced by previous New Zealand leaders. Still, her announcement came as a shock to people throughout the nation of 5 million people.
Fighting back tears, Ardern told reporters in Napier that February 7 would be her last day as prime minister. “I am entering now my sixth year in office, and for each of those years, I have given my absolute all,” she said.
Ardern became an inspiration to women around the world after first winning the top job in 2017 at the relatively young age of 37. She seemed to herald a new generation of leadership — she was on the verge of being a millennial, had spun some records as a part-time DJ, and wasn’t married like most politicians. To many, she was the antithesis of U.S. President Donald Trump.
In 2018, she became just the second world leader to give birth while holding office. Later that year, she brought her infant daughter to the floor of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
In March 2019, Ardern faced one of the darkest days in New Zealand’s history when a white supremacist gunman stormed two mosques in Christchurch and slaughtered 51 people. She was widely praised for the way she empathized with the survivors and New Zealand’s Muslim community in the aftermath.
Less than nine months later, she faced another tragedy when 22 tourists and guides were killed when the White Island volcano erupted.
Ardern was lauded globally for her country’s initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic. after New Zealand managed to stop the virus at its borders for months. But she was forced to abandon that zero-tolerance strategy as more contagious variants spread, and vaccines became widely available.
Ardern faced growing anger at home from those who opposed coronavirus mandates and rules. A protest against vaccine mandates that began on Parliament’s grounds last year lasted for more than three weeks and ended with protesters hurling rocks at police and setting fires to tents and mattresses as they were forced to leave. This year, Ardern was forced to cancel an annual barbecue she hosts due to security fears.
Ardern last month announced that a wide-ranging Royal Commission of Inquiry would look into whether the government made the right decisions in battling COVID-19 and how it could better prepare for future pandemics. A report is due next year.
Some experts said that sexist attitudes played a role in the anger directed at Ardern.
But her government also faced criticism that it had been big on ideas but lacking in execution. Supporters worried it hadn’t made promised gains on increasing the housing supply and reducing child poverty, while opponents said it was not focusing enough on crime and the struggling economy.
Farmers protested against plans to tax cow burps and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Ardern had been facing tough reelection prospects. Her center-left Labour Party won reelection in 2020 with a landslide of historic proportions, but recent polls have put her party behind its conservative rivals.
Ardern said the role required having a reserve to face the unexpected.
“But I am not leaving because it was hard. Had that been the case I probably would have departed two months into the job,” she said. “I am leaving because with such a privileged role comes responsibility. The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also, when you are not.”
She said her time in office had been fulfilling but challenging. “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple,” she said.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Ardern “has shown the world how to lead with intellect and strength.”
“She has demonstrated that empathy and insight are powerful leadership qualities,” Albanese tweeted. “Jacinda has been a fierce advocate for New Zealand, an inspiration to so many and a great friend to me,” he added.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked Ardern on Twitter for her friendship and “empathic, compassionate, strong, and steady leadership.”
Ardern charted an independent course for New Zealand. She tried to take a more diplomatic approach to China than neighboring Australia, which had ended up feuding with Beijing. In an interview with The Associated Press last month, she’d said that building relationships with small Pacific nations shouldn’t become a game of one-upmanship with China.
Ardern on Thursday also announced that New Zealand’s 2023 general elections would be held on Oct. 14, and that she would remain a lawmaker until then.
It’s unclear who will take over as prime minister until the election. Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson announced that he won’t contest the leadership of the Labour Party, throwing the competition open.
Labour Party lawmakers will vote for a new leader on Sunday. If no candidate gets at least two-thirds support from the caucus, then the leadership contest will go to the wider party membership. Ardern has recommended the party chose her replacement by the time she finishes in the role on February 7.
New Zealand Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon said Ardern had been a strong ambassador for the country on the world stage. He said that for his party “nothing changes” and it remains intent on winning the election and “delivering a government that can get things done for the New Zealand people.”
Ardern said she didn’t have any immediate plans after leaving office, other than family commitments with her daughter, Neve, and her fiancé Clarke Gayford, after an outbreak of the virus thwarted their earlier wedding plans.
“And so to Neve, Mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year,” Ardern said. “And to Clarke, let’s finally get married.”
Associated Press reporter Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.