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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern plans to leave office

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation plans on Wednesday in Napier, New Zealand. It is unclear who would succeed her.
Kerry Marshall
Getty Images
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation plans on Wednesday in Napier, New Zealand. It is unclear who would succeed her.

Updated January 19, 2023 at 12:26 AM ET

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Thursday announced her intent to step down in a shock move that rocked the country's political landscape.

Speaking to her party's annual caucus in the seaside town of Napier, 42-year-old Ardern said "it's time" for her to move on and that she "no longer had enough in the tank" for her premiership. She also called for a general election on Oct. 14.

"I'm leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility," Ardern told her audience. "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's that simple."

Ardern became the world's youngest female leader in 2017 at the age of 37. Her last day in the office will be Feb. 7.

"This is not something we were expecting today," said Geoffrey Miller, a geopolitical analyst with the Wellington-based nonprofit Democracy Project. "It was something that commentators had thought of and have been asking since the end of last year ... and she quite convincingly said she was going to stay, and that she wasn't going anywhere."

The last six years have been busy for Ardern, managing disasters and tragedies that propelled her to global superstardom, Miller said. From the COVID-19 pandemic and a volcanic eruption to the terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, he said Ardern has become much more well known than any New Zealand prime minister in the past.

"In many ways, she was the anti-Trump figure," Miller said. "They both came into office in 2017 ... but she went off to the United Nations and she decried isolationism, brandishing an image of being an internationalist or being a globalist."

New Zealand's relationship with China was probably her biggest foreign policy sticking point, Miller said, with Ardern always having to walk a line between souring relations with China and the fact that Beijing is Wellington's largest trading partner.

"But she had to try and find a way forward," Miller said. "And I think her consensus approach helped with this, but at the same time, she wasn't immune to these bigger geopolitical trends."

Meanwhile, at home, things haven't been going so well for Ardern. Her popularity took a dive in 2022, as New Zealanders criticized her handling of the economy amid tough COVID restrictions and growing inflation.

"I mean, for the American audience it is probably a bit like how Barack Obama was perceived, we globally everyone thought he was amazing, but then domestically, he was, he was less popular," said David Cormack with the government relations firm Draper Cormack Group in Wellington.

He said Ardern's popularity took a major hit following multiple, lengthy lockdowns on Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city.

"She went from this unifying force to this incredibly polarizing and divisive force," said Cormack, also the former Green Party head of communications and policy, said. "There were still a lot of people that loved her, but there were a lot of people that had liked her that no longer did, and the feeling towards her seemed really visceral."

As COVID-19 started slipping from the headlines, other domestic challenges arose, including more crime and rising mortgage interest rates, he said.

Now, New Zealanders are saying they want change in the October general election.

Recent polling ahead of the election shows Ardern's Labour Party slightly behind the opposing New Zealand National Party. Analysts expect the election to be hard-fought.

Meanwhile, it is unclear who will lead the caretaker government after Ardern's departure in February.

But it is not expected to be Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robinson of the Labour Party, a move that analysts say could add some discontinuity in Wellington. However, there is also speculation that Ardern's departure will give time for a new leader of the Labour Party to rise before New Zealanders go to the polls later this year.

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Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.