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New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern is resigning. Is there a lesson for other politicians?

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces her resignation on Jan. 19, 2023 in Napier, New Zealand.
Kerry Marshall
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Getty Images
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces her resignation on Jan. 19, 2023 in Napier, New Zealand.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement that she would step down as the country's leader by February shocked many of her constituents and leaders around the world.

"I'm leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility," the 42-year-old Ardern said in her announcement on Thursday local time. "The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It's that simple."

Jennifer Lees-Marshment, an associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Auckland, told NPR she was surprised by Ardern's sudden resignation.

"I did not expect it to happen, because it is rare that politicians are that strategic and selfless," she said.

It's particularly hard to imagine a politician resigning in the U.S. as Ardern did: likely to win re-election and still being respected globally, according to Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

There's something other global leaders should take from this moment of gracefully bowing out while keeping reputations largely intact, experts told NPR.

"Ardern stepping down before she was pushed by colleagues or lost an election may make leaders in other countries wonder if they should leave also," Lees-Marshment said. "Most leaders are embattled due to the long-term impact of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, and the cost of living crisis. Historically leaders have waited to be pushed."

Ardern's departure helps keep the Labour Party afloat

A news alert is displayed on a mobile phone in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.
Mark Baker / AP
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AP
A news alert is displayed on a mobile phone in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

At 37, Ardern became the world's youngest female leader in 2017. As a liberal politician known for her demeanor and compassion, she was often cited as a counterpoint to more extreme politicians such as former U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.

Globally, Ardern is held in high esteem. Domestically, however, she and her Labour Party have taken a reputation hit in recent months. Her ability to win in the next election — as well as that of her party — was strong, but not guaranteed, Lees-Marshment said.

Ardern also faced additional pressures as a relatively young, female leader.

"The pressures on prime ministers are always great, but in this era of social media, clickbait, and 24/7 media cycles, Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country," Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, said.

By stepping down, Ardern gives her party a chance to succeed, Lees-Marshment said.

"Ardern's resignation is not due to a scandal, but there is no doubt that her personal brand had become contaminated," she said. "Labour tied their brand to the leader, so it was very much a leadership brand, which was beneficial in 2017 when Ardern was a new leader and relatable, reassuring and aspirational."

This worked again in 2020, when Ardern's brand as a prime minister was tied to her aggressive and effective crisis management of the COVID pandemic, Lees-Marshment said.

Eventually, her decision to close New Zealand's borders during the pandemic drew criticism at home.

Voters also grew frustrated with the lack of "transformational change" on housing and climate change in particular, which was promised in 2017, Lees-Marshment said.

Ardern became "an electoral liability for 2023."

Ardern's departure is an important reminder for politicians

Some global leaders, struck by Ardern's goodbye speech, said she has reshaped how politicians can lead and then leave on the right note.

World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said Ardern left a good example for others to follow.

"Women know when to step down ... their egos are lower," Okonjo-Iweala told Bloomberg News. Ardern "set a good example" by stepping down after giving her best, she added.

Former Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tweeted, "Jacinda Ardern rewrote the rulebook for how world leaders are supposed to look and act, and further endeared the citizens of the world to NZ because of it."

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with World Trade Organisation Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who at Ardern's resignation, said the prime minister left a "good example" for others to follow.
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Getty Images
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with World Trade Organisation Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who at Ardern's resignation, said the prime minister left a "good example" for others to follow.

This moment can serve as an important reminder for many politicians about why they are in office, said Tammy Vigil, a senior associate dean and associate professor of media science at Boston University.

"We don't often talk about the public service element of leadership as much as we should," she said. "Right now, we've got a lot of party fighting and politicians that become party warriors instead of public servants."

The recent fight over the U.S. House Speaker role is a perfect example of this, Vigil noted.

Politicians are constantly pushed to fundraise or to think about the next election. That isn't always conducive to good leadership, she said.

"The actual point of being a politician is to lead and to govern, and to do good for others. That reminder, I think was was necessary," Vigil said.

Despite her previous drop in polls, Ardern will likely have a very positive legacy, Lees-Marshment said.

"It will include showing how modern values can be integrated into a strong leadership style, including: relatability, kindness and community," she said.

Part of that legacy stems from Ardern's ability to demonstrate "the competence of female leaders" due to her normalizing her duties as a mother and politician while deftly handling multiple crises competently, she said.

This could give space to discussions of mental health in politics

Each of the experts that spoke to NPR were struck by Ardern's choice to mention she didn't have the energy left to take on another term. This could be a good starting point for other politicians to acknowledge the strain that the job takes on their personal lives and mental health, they said.

The support Ardern received from other leaders may help encourage that change. After Ardern made her announcement, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hadja Lahbib tweeted, "It takes courage and wisdom to take a decision like that. You've shown us leadership can be above all human."

In many workplaces, "the idea of mental health being a value has come to the forefront. It hasn't really in politics," Kurlantzick said.

"There's sort of the idea that politicians should just keep striving at it, as long as they're able," he said. It's possible that Ardern's departure "will be a factor that will lead other politicians to think about whether they're impacting their mental health."

Some people have been framing Ardern's resignation as a good moment to force that conversation into the mainstream, Vigil said. But there are going to be critics who frame it as a moment of weakness, showing just how hard it is to have this conversation in politics.

"We should be able to have those conversations about mental health, on all fronts, in all occupations, but I think it's a challenge, particularly for women to be able to make that kind of a statement," she said. "Women have struggled so long to prove that they can kind of run with the men in politics. But I think it's still going to be a while before we see that kind of conversation spreading when it comes to politics."

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