In 2017, the best thing that happened to New Zealand’s centre-left Labour Party in a long time was the elevation of 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern as the new leader. Although Ardern’s appeal was dismissed as “stardust” by a rival in 2017 election, within just seven weeks, she transformed Labour’s moribund poll position through a phenomenon dubbed “Jacinda-mania” that gripped the country.
Three years on, the just-concluded Parliament election in New Zealand exhibited that the wave of Jacinda-mania on which she rose to power continues. Or a much stronger second wave might have emerged in course of time – a remarkable achievement indeed!
Yes, there’s no doubt that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government’s successful Covid-19 strategy ensured her Labour Party a landslide re-election by securing 49.15 per cent of the vote in comparison to the 26.79 per cent bagged by its primary challenger, the conservative National Party. Labour secured 64 out of 120 seats in Parliament in the process of sweeping to its largest electoral victory since 1946.
Ever since New Zealand implemented a Mixed Member Proportional electoral system 24 years ago, a single party has never won an outright majority of seats in the Parliament before. In fact, in 2017, Jacinda ascended to power when her Labour Party secured 36.89 per cent vote share and 46 seats, and she had to form a minority government with the New Zealand First Party and the Greens.
“This has been a really tough time for New Zealand – we’ve had a terrorist attack, a natural disaster and a global pandemic,” Ardern acknowledged earlier. However, her empathetic approach to issues and connect with voters is being cited as the primary reason for such a landslide electoral victory. Ardern won plaudits at home also internationally for her compassionate response after a lone terrorist shot dead 51 Muslim worshippers in two Christchurch mosques in March 2019.
Ardern wore a hijab as she met the Muslim community the day after the attack and told them the country was “united in grief”. An empathetic Ardern, who would bring the country together, was unequivocal that the gunman was a terrorist – but stressed that he did not represent the people of New Zealand. “You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you,” she told the gunman.
Nandini, in Tagore’s drama ‘Raktakarabi’ (‘Red Oleanders’), thought that ‘terrorism’ is the business of some people (“bhoy dekhabar byabsa ekhankar manusher”). We suddenly discover that Nandini is not an abstraction. In an unprecedented and much-acclaimed approach, Ardern has refused to name the gunman in public, and denied him notoriety. And, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her response to the Christchurch mosque attacks.
She quickly announced a change to the country’s gun laws, banning the sale of all semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where lawmakers and activists have been struggling to address gun violence despite numerous mass shootings. Then, in December 2019, a volcano erupted on the privately owned White Island, or Whakaari, which killed 21, and Ardern again led the country in mourning.
Ardern’s continued popularity in the international arena was not very helpful in her re-election bid though. She did face sharp criticism during her first term for the broken election promises on KiwiBuild houses, which were aiming at improving housing affordability. Again, child poverty is a key issue in New Zealand where about one in eight children live in material hardship, according to StatsNZ.
The proportions are almost a quarter and 28.6 per cent within the Maori community and Pacific children, respectively. The Ardern government also faced immense criticism for its inadequate effor t in battling child pover ty, despite election promises. Also, despite promising a transformational term in 2017, plans for a capital gains tax that would have addressed the growing rich-poor divide were scrapped.
The progress on climate change has also been incremental. Some cr itics also scoffed at the “woke” policies that Ardern backs on social and racial justice. Again, the decision to ban offshore oil exploration angered some people – the opposition went on describing it as “economic vandalism”. In fact, by February 2020 – just seven months prior to the originally scheduled date of election in September – the Labour Party was trailing the National Party in the polls – National was enjoying 46 per cent support, with Labour at 41 per cent.
And then came the pandemic to change the world. It gave an unexpected chance to Ardern to revive her poll prospects, and she grabbed the opportunity in the best possible style. As the pandemic began, Jacinda Ardern acted quickly and extremely successfully with her oft repeated slogan “be strong, be kind”. “Jacinda Ardern can be best compared with the three Scandinavian women prime ministers who are from the centre-left,” said Helen Clark, a former New Zealand prime minister for whom Ardern worked after university.
“All of them have led good responses to the pandemic, putting health security first and communicating in an empathetic way with the public in each of their countries.” Ardern’s management of the Covid-19 outbreak has insulated the island nation of 5 million from the deadly virus, and understandably it became the major issue in this election.
In fact, an election during or immediately after the pandemic – anywhere on the globe – is bound to become a referendum on the Covid-management of the incumbent. And, thus coronavirus might have immensely helped Ardern in her re-election. After being appointed Labour leader in 2017, when a television presenter asked her whether she planned to have children, Ardern thought it was “totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace”.
In fact, she went on to give birth to a baby daughter in June 2018, eight months af ter becoming prime minister – thus becoming only the second elected leader to give birth while in office after Benazir Bhutto. While many took her pregnancy and maternity leave as symbolising progress for women, she told the Financial Times, “I don’t want to appear to be superwoman because we should not expect women to be superwomen.”
Whether she aspired to it or not, Ardern has undoubtedly emerged as a superwoman, through her compassionate leadership and her achievements. In her victory speech, Ardern said, “This has not been an ordinary election, and it’s not a ordinary time. It’s been full of uncertainty and anxiety, and we set out to be an antidote to that.”
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)