New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose compassionate handling of the country’s worst mass shooting and health-focused response to the coronavirus pandemic has made her an international icon but has faced mounting criticism at home, said in Thursday, leaving office.
Fighting back tears, Ardern told reporters in Napier that February 7 would be her last day as prime minister.
“I’m entering my sixth year in office, and in each of those years I’ve given absolutely everything I can,” she said.
She also announced that New Zealand’s general election will be held on October 14, and that she will remain a lawmaker until then.
Her statement came as a shock to people throughout the country of 5 million. Although there has been talk in political circles that Ardern may step down before the next election, she has always been adamant that she plans to run again.
It is still unclear who will take over as prime minister before the elections. Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson has announced he will not contest the leadership of the Labor Party, opening the contest.
Ardern became an inspiration to women all over the world after winning the top job in 2017 at the relatively young age of 37. The following year, she became only the second world leader to give birth to children while in office. When she brought her young daughter to the UN General Assembly Hall in New York in 2018, it brought smiles to people everywhere.
In March 2019, Ardern faced one of the darkest days in New Zealand history when a white supremacist gunman stormed two mosques in Christchurch and 51 people were killed. She was widely praised for the way she embraced survivors and the New Zealand Muslim community in the aftermath.
She has been praised around the world for her country’s initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic after New Zealand managed to contain the virus within its borders for months. But this the strategy of zero tolerance was abandoned once this was challenged by new variants and vaccines became widely available.
Ardern faced growing anger at home from those opposed coronavirus mandates and regulations. Last year’s protest, which began on the grounds of parliament, lasted more than three weeks and ended with protesters throwing rocks at police and setting fire to tents and mattresses as they were forced to leave.
The heated emotions surrounding the coronavirus debate have led to a level of vitriol aimed at Ardern rarely seen by former New Zealand leaders. Ardern was forced to cancel her annual barbecue this year due to security concerns.
Ardern faced difficult prospects for re-election. Her liberal Labor Party was re-elected two years ago in a historic landslide victory, but the latest polls have put her party behind its conservative rivals.
Ardern has described her job as one of the most privileged yet challenging, and said doing it requires having the reserve to deal with the unexpected. She said she no longer has that reserve to serve another term.
She said her time in office has been fulfilling but challenging.
“But I’m not leaving because it was difficult. If it was, I probably would have quit in two months. I’m leaving because with such a privileged role comes responsibility, the responsibility of knowing when you’re the right person to lead , and also if you don’t. I know what this job takes, and I know I don’t have enough anymore to do it justice. It’s that simple,” she said.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, whose Labor Party is friendly with New Zealand’s ruling party, said Ardern had “shown the world how to govern with reason and strength”.
“She demonstrated that empathy and insight are strong leadership qualities,” Albanese tweeted.
“Jacinda was a fierce defender of New Zealand, an inspiration to many and a great friend to me,” he added.
As China has become more assertive in the Pacific, Ardern has tried to take a more diplomatic approach than neighboring Australia, which has ended up at odds with China. In an interview with The Associated Press last month, she said building relations with small Pacific nations should not turn into a game of one-upmanship with China.
In December, Ardern announced that a Royal Commission of Inquiry would look into whether the government had made the right decisions in its response to COVID-19 and how it could better prepare for future pandemics. Its report is due next year.
The Labor caucus will vote for a new leader on Sunday. If no candidate gets at least two-thirds of the vote, the leadership race will go to the broader party membership. Ardern has advised the party to choose her replacement by the time she finishes on February 7.
Ardern said she had no immediate plans after stepping down, other than family commitments with daughter Neave and her fiance Clark Gayford, after the virus outbreak scuppered their previous wedding plans.
“And as for Neave, mom is looking forward to seeing you go to school this year,” Ardern said. “And Clark, let’s finally get married.”