New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is to step down ahead of elections later this year.
Ardern, whose empathetic handling of the nation's worst mass-shooting and health-driven response to the coronavirus pandemic led her to become an international icon but who faced mounting criticism at home, said Thursday she was leaving office.
Fighting back tears, Ardern told reporters in Napier that 7 February would be her last day as prime minister.
"I am entering now my sixth year in office, and for each of those years, I have given my absolute all," she said.
She also announced that New Zealand’s 2023 general elections would be held on 14 October and that she would remain a lawmaker until then.
Her announcement came as a shock to people throughout the nation of 5 million people. Although there had been some chatter in political circles that Ardern might resign before the next election, she’d always maintained she planned to run again.
It’s unclear who will take over as prime minister until the election. Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson announced that he won't contest the leadership of the Labour Party, throwing the competition open.
Ardern became an inspiration to women around the world after winning the top job in 2017 at the relatively young age of 37. The following year, she became just the second world leader to give birth while holding office. When she brought her infant daughter to the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2018, it brought smiles to people everywhere.
In March 2019, Ardern faced one of the darkest days in New Zealand’s history when a white supremacist gunman stormed two mosques in Christchurch and slaughtered 51 people. She was widely praised for the way she embraced the survivors and New Zealand’s Muslim community in the aftermath.
She was lauded globally for her country’s initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic after New Zealand managed for months to stop the virus at its borders. But she was forced to abandon that zero-tolerance strategy as more contagious variants spread and vaccines became widely available.
Growing domestic political pressure
Ardern faced growing anger at home from those who opposed coronavirus mandates and rules. A protest last year that began on Parliament’s grounds lasted for more than three weeks and ended with protesters hurling rocks at police and setting fires to tents and mattresses as they were forced to leave.
The heated emotions around the coronavirus debate led to a level of vitriol directed at Ardern that had rarely been seen by other New Zealand leaders. This year, Ardern was forced to cancel an annual barbecue she hosts due to security fears.
Ardern had been facing tough reelection prospects. Her liberal Labour Party won reelection two years ago in a landslide of historic proportions, but recent polls have put her party behind its conservative rivals.
Ardern said the role required having a reserve to face the unexpected.
“But I am not leaving because it was hard. Had that been the case I probably would have departed two months into the job," she said. “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.”
She said her time in office had been fulfilling but challenging.
"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,” she said.