WELLINGTON – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose empathetic handling of the nation's worst mass-shooting and health-driven response to the coronavirus pandemic led her to become an international icon but who faced mounting criticism at home, said Thursday she was leaving office.
Fighting back tears, Ardern told reporters in Napier that Feb. 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.
She also announced that New Zealand’s 2023 general elections would be held on Oct. 14, and that she would remain a lawmaker until then.
Her announcement came as a shock to people throughout the nation of 5 million people. Although there had been some chatter in political circles that Ardern might resign before the next election, she’d always maintained she planned to run again.
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.
Ardern became an inspiration to women around the world after winning the top job in 2017 at the relatively young age of 37. The following year, she became just the second world leader to give birth while holding office. When she brought her infant daughter to the floor of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 2018, it brought smiles to people everywhere.
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 embraced the survivors and New Zealand’s Muslim community in the aftermath.
She was lauded globally for her country’s initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic after New Zealand managed for months to stop the virus at its borders. 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 last year that began on Parliament’s grounds 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.
The heated emotions around the coronavirus debate led to a level of vitriol directed at Ardern that had rarely been seen by other New Zealand leaders. This year, Ardern was forced to cancel an annual barbecue she hosts due to security fears.
Ardern had been facing tough reelection prospects. Her liberal Labour Party won reelection two years ago in 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, whose Labor Party is aligned with New Zealand’s ruling party, 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.
With China becoming more assertive in the Pacific, Ardern had tried to take a more diplomatic approach than neighboring Australia, which had ended up feuding with China. 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 last month announced 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. Its report is due next year.
The Labour Party caucus will vote for a new leader on Sunday. If no candidate gets at least two-thirds support, 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 Feb. 7.
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.”