How New Zealand’s post-COVID reality forced Jacinda Ardern to step down

Jacinda Ardern had that star appeal — a young progressive politician who promised big changes to some of the most entrenched social issues facing her country.

The Labour leader had big ambitions to address child poverty and help New Zealanders afford a home, but in the end so much of her prime ministership was spent leading her country through crisis. 

The Whakaari White Island disaster, the Christchurch terrorist attack and the COVID pandemic came to define her legacy at home and on the world stage. 

But the popularity “Brand Ardern” has enjoyed internationally has been fading at home.

By the middle of last year there was speculation her time as the leader of New Zealand might soon come to an end.

Pundits pointed to the prime minister’s worsening polls and the fact the opposition had finally managed to get itself together enough to offer a legitimate alternative.

Perhaps with her star soaring so high, this would be the moment to take an international position, some analysts suggested. 

But there was another sign — one literally written on the sidewalks in New Zealand.

A stencil of the words #ResignJacinda is painted in pink on a cement footpath with a man walking past.
Graffiti on the street in Auckland reads #ResignJacinda — a call often made by New Zealand’s anti-lockdown movement.  (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

The strict COVID policies of Ms Ardern’s government had divided her country and left it nearly impossible for the leader to deliver on the promises she made when the world was different.  

Today she said: “It’s one thing to lead your country through peacetime, it’s another to lead them through crisis. I had the privilege of being alongside New Zealand in a crisis and they placed their faith in me.” 

“It is not an easy time. There are struggles out there. There is much work to be done.

“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.”

The risks of ‘fortress NZ’

On the international stage, Ms Ardern’s tough COVID policies played as the strong leader keeping the virus out of her country and her people safe — and for a long time that was true.

But at home, that policy created risks for the leader — some political, others physical. 

Jacinda Ardern, wearing a floral head piece and necklace, smiles while taking a selfie on the campaign trail
Since her landslide election win in 2020, Ardern’s popularity has been fading at home.(Reuters: Fiona Goodall)

Fortress New Zealand became a “Trojan horse” for the country’s far right and tough vaccine mandates enabled that group to pick up more members from mainstream parts of society.

While the most extreme members of the so-called “freedom movement” sent Ms Ardern death threats, teachers and nurses protested beside them.  

The political risk came when the walls of fortress New Zealand eventually came down, and Ms Ardern was faced with not only a series of unmet election promises, but rocketing inflation. 

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