NEWSMAKER-New Zealand’s Ardern leaves legacy of kindness and disappointments

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By Praveen Menon

Jan 19 (Reuters) – Jacinda Ardern has put tiny New Zealand on the map in her five years as prime minister, becoming a global icon for left-wing politics and women in leadership, even as she struggled with the economy and COVID-19 at home 19 restrictions.

The 41-year-old — who gained attention for bringing her baby to a United Nations meeting and wearing a hijab after a mass killing of Muslims — announced in similarly dramatic fashion on Thursday that she will be stepping down in less than three weeks. “no longer in the tank”.

“Be strong, be kind,” New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in more than a century repeated during her eventful tenure, but her empathetic leadership and crisis management skills often masked her administration’s shortcomings.

Considered handsome and engaging, Ardern turned speaking from the heart and smiling through adversity into a winning formula to take power in 2017 and return in 2020 with a sweeping victory, marking the country’s first all-left government. New Zealand in decades was ushered in.

Her leadership was marked by unprecedented events for the island nation of 5 million: the 2019 massacre of 51 Muslim worshipers in Christchurch by a white supremacist and the eruption of the White Island volcano, and the pandemic the following year.

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“I hope I leave New Zealanders with the belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused,” Ardern said in an emotional resignation announcement. “And that you can be your own kind of leader — someone who knows when it’s time to go.”

PROBLEMS SET UP, REVIEWS FALL

Ardern received worldwide acclaim for her response to the Christchurch attacks, which she labeled as terrorism. Wearing a headscarf, she met the Muslim community and told them that New Zealand was “united in grief”.

She announced a ban on semi-automatic firearms and other firearms within weeks of the massacre, a stark contrast to the United States, where lawmakers and activists have struggled to address gun violence despite regular mass shootings.

She launched a global campaign to end online hate and was herself often targeted by right-wing extremists online.

Making world headlines in 2020, Ardern chaired New Zealand’s most diverse parliament, with more than half of its members being women and the largest number of indigenous Maori legislators.

When COVID arrived, she was one of the first leaders to close borders and adopt a zero-tolerance strategy that protected New Zealanders from the virus, with death rates well below those of other advanced countries.

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But not everyone was happy with her “go hard, go early” approach, which included a nationwide lockdown due to a single infection.

While Ardern’s popularity rose internationally, she faced mounting political headwinds at home and struggled to prove her leadership extended beyond crisis management and friendliness.

Her ratings have fallen in recent months due to a deepening housing crisis, rising costs of living and mortgage interest deductions, and growing concerns about crime. However, she remains more popular than her rivals.

Despite her promises of transformational leadership, Ardern’s affordable housing programs have been slowed by blunders. Even on climate change, which Ardern called “the nuclear-free moment of my generation,” progress has been made incrementally.

REFRESHING

Ardern burst onto the world stage in 2017 when she became the world’s youngest female head of government at the age of 37.

Riding a wave of “Jacinda mania,” she passionately campaigned for women’s rights and an end to child poverty and economic inequality in the country.

Raised as a Mormon by her police officer mother and father, Ardern left the church in the early 2000s because of her stance on LGBTQ people and has since described herself as agnostic.

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Hours after being named leader of the Labor Party, she was asked if she planned to have children. Ardern said it was “totally unacceptable to say in 2017 that women should be answering that question in the workplace”.

Eight months after becoming prime minister, she had a baby girl and became only the second elected leader to give birth while in office, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. Less than three months later, Ardern brought the baby, Neve Te Aroha, to the UN General Assembly in New York.

Many took her pregnancy and the Prime Minister’s maternity leave as a symbol of progress for women leaders, as part of a wave of progressive women leaders, including Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

Meeting Marin in Wellington in November, Ardern fired back when asked if the two only met because they were young and feminine.

“I wonder if anyone ever asked Barack Obama and John Key if they met because they were the same age,” Ardern said, referring to the former US president and New Zealand prime minister. “Because two women meet, it’s not just because of their gender.”

(Reporting by Praveen Menon in Sydney; editing by William Mallard)