New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a surprise announcement on Thursday that she will step down next month as the leader of the South Pacific nation and that she will not seek re-election later this year.
“I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have but also one of the more challenging. You cannot and should not do it unless you have a full tank plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges,” she told the media at a news conference.
“I will not be seeking re-election. My term as Prime Minister will conclude no later than the 7th of February,” a visibly upset Ardern said.
Ardern, who became Prime Minister in 2017 at the age of 37, enjoyed immense popularity at home and gained even more star power abroad due to her deft handling of three unexpected crises: shootings at Christchurch mosques in 2019 that left 51 people dead, a deadly volcanic eruption in December 2019, and the global pandemic.
She was thrust into the international spotlight by the mosque attack. Less than 24 hours after the shooting rampage, she donned a black headscarf to meet members of the Muslim community, earning praise for her compassionate response. She quickly led a push to make meaningful gun legislation reforms.
Ardern received praise again for her empathetic leadership style when photos circulated of her hugging first responders after a volcanic eruption that killed more than 20 people.
New Zealand had one of the most successful pandemic responses in the world, and Ardern, who was lauded for her clear communication and science-backed decisions, enjoyed a boost in her already high popularity, although she faced some criticism at home over the strictness of the country’s zero-tolerance strategy.
But she indicated on Thursday that dealing with such heavy burdens of leadership had taken a toll on her. “After going on six years of some big challenges, I am human,” she said. “Politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can, and then it’s time.”
She won re-election in 2020, buoyed by her response to the pandemic, despite the country slipping into its deepest recession in decades. But the progressive leader’s domestic popularity had waned in recent months—mainly over economic issues—and there were doubts that she would be able to clinch another term in the next election, scheduled for October. Polls in December showed approval for her Labor Party at around 33%, some of the lowest results during Ardern’s leadership.
“I am not leaving because I believe we can’t win the election but because I think we can and will, and we need a fresh set of shoulders for that challenge.”