New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been hailed worldwide for her government's swift response to Covid-19, which has helped New Zealand avoid the mass infections and deaths that have devastated the US and Europe. Now the country's voters have reacted to their leadership and presented Ardern and its Labor Party with their biggest election victory in 50 years.
40-year-old Ardern gained international attention when she became Prime Minister in 2017, then one of the youngest female leaders in the world. Earlier this year, due to lack of progress on issues that had been promised to be prioritized, such as housing and reducing child poverty, their center-left was facing a narrow election, CNN reported.
Then came Covid-19. Ardern was quick to respond with an early lockdown that essentially prevented the virus from spreading. She also spoke directly to New Zealanders with a warmth and empathy that other world leaders lacked and helped ease New Zealanders' fears and get them on board with coronavirus restrictions. To date, New Zealand has reported fewer than 2,000 cases and 25 deaths from Covid-19.
In Saturday's elections, Ardern's party is well on its way to winning 64 of the 120 seats in the country's parliament, according to Reuters. This would give the Labor Party ultimate control over the government, allowing it to rule without the need to form a coalition, and giving Ardern and her allies more power than ever to determine New Zealand's course through the pandemic and beyond.
"We will recover better from the Covid crisis," said Ardern in her acceptance speech on Saturday, recalling a slogan that was also used by former US Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign. "This is our chance."
Ardern has always been popular abroad. Now she has a mandate at home.
Ardern has made a name for itself around the world since its election, as Damien Cave reports in the New York Times. It wasn't just her youth that caught the eye – she was also the first female global leader in nearly 30 years, born in office in 2018. Her six week parental leave was hailed as a game changer, demonstrating the importance of paid vacation to parents at a time when many – especially in the U.S. – are struggling to access this benefit. (In New Zealand, new parents can have up to 26 weeks of paid vacation leave funded by the government.)
But Ardern was not always as successful at home as it was abroad. She led a coalition with the nationalist New Zealand First Party and struggled to deliver on progressive promises like affordable housing and combating climate change, Cave reports.
Covid-19 then changed everything. Ardern received praise not only around the world but also in New Zealand, where its quick action meant many children could go back to school and adults back to work, while countries like the US saw infections rise.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the pandemic, their personal addresses have been praised to New Zealanders for their directness and warmth. In April, for example, she assured the country's children that both the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny were seen as essential workers.
Ardern's response was in many ways the embodiment of one of her leadership mantras: "Be strong, be kind." The effectiveness of Ardern, as well as the strong reactions from Angela Merkel from Germany, Tsai Ing-Wen from Taiwan and others even led some to wonder whether female executives were better at dealing with the pandemic than men.
And now her constituents have voted to keep her at the top while New Zealand continues to weather Covid-19. With a majority in the country's parliament, Labor will be able to form a one-party government that may give Ardern more opportunities to meet its priorities than in the past.
Despite this mandate, Ardern's second term will bring new challenges, including repairing an economy that has been weakened by successive lockdowns and ensuring that their majority can keep their election promises. "She has significant political capital," Jennifer Curtin, director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland, told the Times. "She will have to deliver on her promises with more substance."
But Ardern says she is ready to get to work. The campaign slogan that led them to victory was simply: "Let's keep moving."
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