Hoor Asrar describes an excellent career ending
Exit of Jacinda Ardern was widely hailed as a refreshing addition to a predominantly male world of politics having specific flair of her own. She burst into the centre of politics in New Zealand riding a wave of “Jacindamania” in the island nation and leading New Zealand’s center-left Labour Party as a liberal. She remained centre of attraction not only in New Zealand but in the wider world due to her political sagacity and humanitarian approach. Taking office at age 37, Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s youngest leader in more than 150 years when she was elected prime minister in 2017. Some political commentators mentioned her in a jest as the lady with big teeth.
When Jacinda Ardern became prime minister in 2017 most questions were focused on her intention about striking a balance between her career and family but at the time she always responded that this question was discriminatory and she was capable of doing it. However, just a year later in 2018 she became the second world political leader in modern times to give birth to a baby and this event brought to fore the issue of balancing family and career once again. She tried to multitask as she took maternity leave for six weeks and later traveled with her 3-month-old daughter to the United General Assembly where she remained the focus of attention. Despite her efforts many skeptics remained doubtful about her intention and ability.
The skeptics were however proved right when announcing her resignation in the coastal city of Napier Jacinda Ardern mentioned that she was looking forward to spending more time with her family. She and her partner, Clarke Gayford, had to cancel their wedding last year because of the Coronavirus pandemic. While announcing her resignation she specifically assured her daughter that her mum is looking forward to being there when she starts school this year. She also told her partner that they should get married. By quitting office she will join a small group of former female leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Theresa May and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
At the time of her rise Jacinda Ardern made headlines for being young and virtually unknown, and then as the first leader in 30 years to have a baby in office. That child, Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, is now 4 years old and her mother is now more tired than ever after confronting multiple crises, including the worst terror attack in the New Zealand’s history, a deadly volcanic explosion and a global pandemic that prompted unpopular lockdowns and all these crises happened all during her first term in office. It was widely appreciated however that she handled all these crises with steadfastness and commitment and was widely applauded.
On 6 February, the personable leader would have been expected to be standing behind the BBQ flipping sausages during New Zealand’s National Day, Waitangi Day, as she has done for the past four years. But this year, reports suggested the BBQ could be canceled because it was potentially too dangerous for the prime minister to be so exposed. Some analysts point out that sustained attacks on her character, threats against her life and the prospect of worse to come in the months before a tough election likely contributed to her decision to bow out. It was also mentioned that she was exhausted from doing a job that was probably more intense than any job a New Zealand prime minister has done since the Second World War.
In terms of Covid deaths, New Zealand suffered an enviably low toll, losing fewer than 2,500 lives partly due to Jacinda Ardern’s quick action to close the country’s borders as the Coronavirus spread worldwide in March 2020. But prolonged Covid lockdowns and mandates led to alarming scenes in the nation’s capital Wellington last March when protesters camping for weeks outside the Parliament set fire to tents, mattresses and chairs. Then in October, her office was allegedly attacked while the prime minister was on a trip to Antarctica, adding to fears about her safety.
The country’s police reported that 50 threats were made against her in 2021 – up from 32 in 2020 and 18 in 2019. The threats related to vaccinations, Covid-19 and firearms though it was impossible to ascertain a motive for many as they included simply offensive, obscene or threatening words. In her resignation speech however she made no mention of the threats and emphasised that she was not leaving the job because it was somewhat dangerous and hard work was involved.
During her term in office she contended with a string of sexist complaints and this problem has also dogged other female leading politicians. As a lawmaker in 2012, Ardern was told to “zip it, sweetie” by a fellow female politician a phrase that was often used against her online after she became prime minister. Shortly after Ardern was elected, a prominent New Zealand economist tweeted that she would need to prove she was more than “lipstick on a pig,” igniting rebuke from lawmakers and social media pundits about misogynistic language. During a news conference in Auckland between Jacinda Ardern and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin a reported asked whether both the leaders were meeting as they were of a similar age and gender, prompting Ardern to hit back by stating that no one ever asked Barack Obama and John Key, New Zealand’s former Prime Minister, if they met because they were of similar age and of same gender.
Although gender equality remains a contested issue yet last year New Zealand became the first advanced democracy to have a female majority legislature. Jacinda Ardern clearly favoured an inclusive pluralism when in office she formed the most diverse government in New Zealand’s history after a landslide election victory in 2020, with more women, people of colour, LGBTQ and Indigenous members of Parliament than ever before. She has also championed the #MeToo movement for gender equality and her empathetic brand of governing. A self-described feminist she once said that she hoped to be remembered as a good leader, not a good lady leader emphasising that she simply does not want to be known as the woman who gave birth in office.
Jacinda Ardern’s controlled descent from the stratosphere of international politics – where she was admired by millions around the world for her progressive policies – is almost as fast as her dramatic rise to the premiership in 2017, just three months after being tapped to lead the Labour Party. She will be out of office on 7 February confirming that burnout in hectic positions is real and it is nothing to be ashamed of. She reached that stage after trailblazing career as Prime Minister after almost six brutal years in office. Her decision to stand down came during a reflective summer and also in view of an election looming this October convincing her not to prolong her departure. She may have been feted on the world stage for bringing humanity and empathy to the role but at home the rising cost of living, housing shortages and economic anxiety had some wondering if her government could do more to ease their pain. TW