Jacinda Ardern, Hero to Liberals Abroad, Is Validated at Home

SYDNEY, Australia — Her face has graced magazine covers all over the world. Her leadership style has been studied by Harvard scholars. Her science-and-solidarity approach to the coronavirus, which included answering questions in a sweatshirt after putting her daughter to bed, has drawn legions of fans in other countries who write to say, “I wish you were here.”

The global left (and a chunk of the center) has fallen hard for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, giving her a prodigious presence for a leader who manages a smaller population than many mayors do. Now her country’s voters have come around as well.

On Saturday, Ms. Ardern, 40, was well on her way to a second term. Early results in a national election showed her Labour Party projected to win a clear majority in Parliament, with around 66 of 120 seats and 50.3 percent of the vote — its strongest showing, by far, since New Zealand overhauled its electoral system in the mid-1990s.

Riding a wave of support for her “go hard, go early” response to the coronavirus, which has effectively been stamped out in the country, Ms. Ardern has now cemented her position as New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in generations, if not ever.

The sizable win reflects a rapid rise to political stardom.

Just three years ago, Ms. Ardern was a last-minute choice to lead the Labour Party, and in her first term, she often struggled to fulfill her progressive promises, from making housing more affordable to eliminating child poverty and attacking climate change.

ImageMs. Ardern and the National Party leader, Judith Collins, during a debate last month. 
Credit…Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

But after managing the responses to the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the White Island volcano eruption and a pandemic — not to mention the birth of her first child — she has quickly become a global standard-bearer for a progressive politics that defines itself as compassionate and competent in crisis.

“The anti-Trump?” That’s what Vogue called her. “Saint Jacinda?” That one comes from the usually staid Financial Times, while a New York Times editorial last year carried the headline: “America Deserves a Leader as Good as Jacinda Ardern.”

In New Zealand, a small-c conservative or small-c center kind of country where the love for Ms. Ardern had generally lagged her profile abroad, she now finally has a mandate that (almost) matches her international adoration. If Labour’s margin holds, it will be the first time since 1951 that a party has won more than 50 percent of the vote in New Zealand.

What’s unknown is whether that will help deliver the major policy successes that have eluded her.

“She has significant political capital,” said Jennifer Curtin, director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland. “She’s going to have to fulfill her promises with more substance.”

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Ms. Ardern has said very little about her legislative plans. She won primarily with a pandemic-fueled surge in support, as New Zealand recently declared community transmission of the coronavirus eliminated for a second time.

The remote Pacific Island nation of five million people, which has tallied only 25 coronavirus deaths, now looks and feels mostly normal: A recent rugby match between Australia and New Zealand in Wellington, the capital, drew 30,000 fans.

Given such progress when other countries are seeing coronavirus cases increase, Ms. Ardern sailed through her campaign with the slogan, “Let’s keep moving.”

Credit…Ben Mckay/EPA, via Shutterstock

Her opponent, Judith Collins, a lawyer and member of the center-right National Party, tried to dent her credibility by arguing that the virus had re-emerged in August on Ms. Ardern’s watch because of some kind of breach in protocol at the border or at a quarantine facility.

At a handful of debates, Ms. Collins sought to portray Ms. Ardern as untrustworthy, more shine than steady leader. In the final days of the race, she labeled the prime minister a liar.

“She told us on June 23 everybody was being tested. What a lie,” Ms. Collins said at one of her final campaign events this week. “When she said she went hard and fast, she went slow and pathetic. And she lied to us about what was happening.”

Polls showed that Ms. Collins never gained much traction with lines of attack like these.

But even as Ms. Ardern glided to another term, her next government will confront an unfamiliar set of challenges.

New Zealanders have historically liked their politics down the middle. Coalition governments are the norm, and Ms. Ardern’s first term was marked by a partnership with the populist, center-right New Zealand First Party, which was projected to win no seats this time around.

Now Labour will be able to govern on its own with the support of the Greens (they were projected to win around 10 seats), giving her more leeway to move left. That will increase pressure on her to follow through on the progressive promises she has made for years about eliminating child poverty, fixing a housing crisis that has priced out many middle-class families, and tackling climate change more aggressively.

The core decision that Ms. Ardern faces is how far to push, with which proposals, at a time when the economy is still threatened by the pandemic, and the party she leads is still uncertain about what to do with its sudden good fortune.

Credit…Fiona Goodall/Reuters

In a parliamentary democracy like New Zealand’s, legislation can move quickly, which means the success or failure of new policies will fall squarely on her shoulders.

“If you can’t blame the minor party for putting the hand brake on, then you better make sure you deliver,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North.

One option would be to abandon her usual preference for consensus and reach as far and fast as possible. The more likely choice, observers say, is that she will recognize that she won in part with center-right voters, and will linger in the center as she angles for a third or fourth term — a Labour dynasty.

At her core, Professor Curtin said, “she’s a reformist rather than a radical.”

Morgan Godfery, a writer and commentator who specializes in political issues affecting the Indigenous Maori people, said Ms. Ardern reflected the political environment from which she arose.

“The Labour Party is something of a contradiction at the moment, because they are more popular than at any point since the 1940s, but they are more cautious,” he said. “They don’t seem quite sure on how they’re going to use that popularity. There’s very little new thinking on housing, tax, Maori issues.”

During the campaign, Ms. Ardern ruled out a wealth tax favored by the Greens, which would require individuals with a net worth of more than 1 million New Zealand dollars, or about $665,000, to pay 1 percent of their wealth above that threshold as tax. Those worth more than 2 million dollars would pay 2 percent.

Asked for one new idea to stimulate the post-pandemic economy during the second debate in late September, she provided a conventional response.

“Invest in our people,” she said. “Make apprenticeships free. Make vocational training free. Get them into vocational jobs that grow the economy.”

Credit…David Rowland/EPA, via Shutterstock

Professor Curtin said that in many ways, Ms. Ardern’s response to the pandemic’s economic impact — emphasizing infrastructure, small businesses and exporters — reflected traditional thinking that overlooked industries, such as health care and child care, that could do more for the economy and encourage greater equality.

“She’s said she’s a feminist,” Professor Curtin said, “but she’s been careful and perhaps a little too slow in addressing the material well-being of many women in New Zealand, particularly poorer women or older women.”

Oliver Hartwich, executive director of the New Zealand Initiative, a center-right think tank, said Ms. Ardern had been a more effective communicator than policy strategist.

“When it comes to P.R., when it comes to her daily press conference in the Covid crisis — taking the people along and explaining what she wants to do and what she wants to achieve, there’s no one who comes even close to what Jacinda does. She’s phenomenal and a genuine talent,” Mr. Hartwich said.

“Where she’s not good,” he added, “is on the details of policy, on the details of strategy, of execution, of implementation, of evaluations, of all the normal things that come along with government. That’s where she falls short.”

For many voters this week, though, Ms. Ardern’s clear skills in managing crises were more than enough.

Steph Cole, 58, a motel owner in Hamilton, said she usually cast her ballot for the National Party. She voted Labour for the first time, she said, after seeing how Ms. Ardern handled the Christchurch attacks and the pandemic, unifying the country in times of life and death.

“I just think Jacinda Ardern epitomizes everything a good leader should be,” Ms. Cole said.

Credit…Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Natasha Frost contributed reporting from Rotorua, New Zealand. Yan Zhuang contributed research from Melbourne, Australia.

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