WELLINGTON - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Thursday made a shock announcement that she had “no more in the tank” to continue leading the country and would step down no later than early February and not seek re-election.
Ms Ardern, holding back tears, said that it had been a tough five and a half years as prime minister and that she was only human and needed to step aside.
“This summer, I had hoped to find a way to prepare for not just another year, but another term - because that is what this year requires. I have not been able to do that,” Ms Ardern, 42, told a news conference in Napier where her Labour Party is holding a caucus meeting.
“I know there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so called ‘real’ reason was... The only interesting angle you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, that I am human,” she continued. “Politicians are human. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.”
Ms Ardern said the job had taken a toll on her.
“I have given my absolute all to being Prime Minister but it has also taken a lot out of me,” she said. “You cannot and should not do the job unless you have a full tank, plus a bit in reserve for those unplanned and unexpected challenges that inevitably come along.”
A ruling New Zealand Labour Party vote for a new leader will take place on Sunday. The party leader will be prime minister until the next general election. Ms Ardern’s term as leader will conclude no later than Feb 7 and a general election will be held on Oct 14.
Ms Ardern said she believed Labour would win the upcoming election.
New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson, who also serves as finance minister, said in a statement he would not seek to stand as the next Labour leader.
Political commentator Ben Thomas said Ms Ardern’s announcement was a huge surprise as polls still ranked her as the country’s preferred prime minister even though support for her party had fallen from the stratospheric heights seen during the 2020 election.
Mr Thomas said there was no clear successor.
Ms Ardern said she was not stepping down because the job was hard, but because she believed others could do a better job.
She made a point of telling her daughter Neve that she was looking forward to being there when she started school this year and told her long-time partner Clarke Gayford that it was time they married.
She had yet to make concrete plans for the future, except to spend more time with her family, she added.
Ms Ardern’s initial election made a big splash on the global stage because of her gender and youth, coining the phrase “Jacinda-mania”.
She became the world’s youngest female head of government when she was elected prime minister in 2017 at age 37.
She led New Zealand through the coronavirus pandemic as well as major disasters, including a 2019 terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch.
But it was her response in that massacre of 51 people in Christchurch, by a gunman espousing anti-immigrant hatred, that solidified her image as a liberal icon.
“We represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it,” she said at the time.”
Ms Ardern had been expected to seek a third term at this year’s general election, although she faced an uphill battle as memories fade of her strong leadership during the early stages of the pandemic and voters focus on the soaring cost of living and a darkening economic outlook. There have also been some highly publicised instances of violent crime that affected her popularity.
The central bank is forecasting as recession this year as it hikes interest rates at record pace to regain control of inflation.
Ms Ardern will remain a Member of Parliament until April to avoid a by-election.
Following Ms Ardern’s shock announcement on Thursday, the head of New Zealand’s opposition National Party, Mr Christopher Luxon, thanked the prime minister for her service to the country.
“She has given her all to this incredibly demanding job and I wish her and her family all the very best for the future. Thank you Jacinda,” Mr Luxon said.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said he expected to hear more from Ms Ardern after she has had “some time to recharge”.
“Jacinda has been a voice of calm, kind reassurance and strength,” Mr Hipkins said. “I can think of no better person to have led us through the past five and a half years and I totally respect her decision to stand aside.”
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanest praised his counterpart’s leadership.
“Jacinda Ardern has shown the world how to lead with intellect and strength,” Mr Albanese said. “She has demonstrated that empathy and insight are powerful leadership qualities. Jacinda has been a fierce advocate for New Zealand, an inspiration to so many and a great friend to me.” REUTERS, BLOOMBERG