Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced today (Jan 19) that she is stepping down as New Zealand's leader and will not contest general elections scheduled for October.
PM Ardern's surprise exit comes amid her plummeting personal popularity, forecast of a deep economic recession marked by the highest inflation in three decades, a cost of living crisis, unaffordable housing, rising crime graph, massive discontent over draconian Covid measures and the latest rounds of polls showing that the ruling party Labour Party is set to lose the coming election to a resurgent opposition formation led by National Party.
The last polls of 2022 had Labour at about 33%, compared with the centre-right National party's 38-39%.
'I am not leaving because it was hard. Had that been the case I probably would have departed two months into the job. I am leaving because with such a privileged role, comes responsibility, the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also, when you are not. I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple," PM Ardern said.
A relatively junior figure in the party, Ardern found herself catapulted to the leadership of the Labour Party in 2017. At 37, she was the youngest prime minister of the country. Her elevation created a groundswell of enthusiasm in the country used mainly to seasoned veterans at the helm.
Her soaring popularity, dubbed "Jacindamania", helped her win re-election two years ago in a landslide of historic proportions,
Ardern was touted as an exemplar for her initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic in New Zealand. The country managed for months to stop the virus at its borders. But Ardern faced trenchant criticism at home that the strategy was too strict.
Arderen however, abandoned the zero-tolerance strategy when challenged by new variants and vaccines became available. Once the draconian measures were lifted, Ardern's government stumbled on issues like the availability of rapid antigen testing, workforce shortages, and poor rate of vaccine coverage
Ardern, in December, announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry would look into whether the government made the right decisions in battling COVID-19 and how it can better prepare for future pandemics. Its report is due next year.
The biggest reason for Ardern's dwindling popularity is likely to be her poor stewardship of the country's economy. In a bid to combat an inflation rate of 7.2%, New Zealand's central bank has unveiled its plans to enter a phase of "shallow recession" in 2023. The Central Bank has hiked rate, driving up homeowners' mortgage payments. Petrol prices started surging mid-year, and the cost of food essentials is up 10.7% annually.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said he wouldn't be contesting the party's leadership, throwing open the competition to become New Zealand's next prime minister to other members of the Labour Party.
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(With inputs from PTI)
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