In the turbulent global landscape of 2020, everything seems the opposite to Jacinda Ardern.
Not only did she win re-election this weekend as New Zealand’s prime minister, a place that seems as far removed from Washington geographically as it is politically.
Ardern, 40, is almost alone since he handed over Covid-19, but has not uprooted the community. While the coronavirus is raging elsewhere, New Zealand has become something of a parallel universe, where locks, masks and social distancing are no longer needed.
Even before the pandemic, it had become a favorite of liberals around the world because of its sympathetic response to the attack on mosques in Christchurch, which killed 51
She gained further recognition after becoming only the second world leader to have a baby during her reign – and took her child to the UN General Assembly.
In short, as the leader of the center-left Labor Party, its image cannot diminish in stark contrast to nationalists and populists like President Donald Trump. From a foreign perspective, its historic re-election is even more remarkable, securing 49 per cent of the vote and a majority of seats in parliament – seen as a landslide in coalition-dominated New Zealand politics.
“This kind of landslide should be almost impossible in New Zealand’s system of proportional representation,” said Harshan Kumarasingham, a New Zealander who teaches politics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “It is very difficult for any party to get the majority it has, and they should usually join a coalition.”
Voters not only presented Ardern Labor with the biggest victory in 50 years, but also flatly rejected the populist New Zealand First Party and Advance NZ, a new group accused of spreading misinformation in the campaign. They both failed to win seats at all.
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She now has enough seats to run on her own, but has decided to meet with the Green Party to sign her credentials as a “consensus builder”, as she put it on Monday.
This does not mean that her first term is without her critics.
She is accused of failing to tackle child poverty, a problem that New Zealand achieves poorly compared to other high-income countries, according to the UN Children’s Fund.
Nearly 25 percent of children in New Zealand live in poverty, according to a Unicef survey this year, less than the United States but more than 31 other rich countries included in the survey, such as Iceland, Demark and South Korea.
And – although she caused excitement by wearing a Maori cloak at a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II in 2018 – she was criticized for not addressing inequality among the Maori population.
Although inequalities have declined in recent years, Maori people – the original inhabitants of New Zealand before the arrival of European settlers in the 18th century – still have lower incomes, poorer housing and poorer health than their counterparts, who are not Maori, according to the New Zealand government.
“She is seen abroad as this inspiring figure because of her approach, which is so different from what happens in many other places,” said Tom O’Brien, a former New Zealand Department of Health official who now teaches political sociology at York University in England.
“But at home, it’s a much more mundane policy,” he said. “She happens to be prime minister, she has to keep working. She succeeds in some policies; in others she doesn’t do so well.”
But Ardern’s success has less to do with her campaign manifesto, Kumarasingham said, but rather with her overall style as a responsible leader who has the country’s best interests. This and her perception of the status of a lone conqueror of the coronavirus in the world.
“At a time when there is a lot of instability and fear, I think most New Zealanders like the fact that she is obviously a good person,” Kumarasingham said, “someone who is unlikely to do something radical that upsets a minority or a majority of population. “
Darling on the left side of the world
Among those to the left of center, Ardern’s star could hardly be taller.
Last year, she won placards calling for a quick ban on assault rifles in New Zealand after the Christchurch massacre. Ardern wore a headscarf as he laid flowers at the scene and comforted the bereaved relatives.
She was only the second world leader to give birth during her rule (after the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto). And she won international eyeballs again after the deadly eruption of the White Island volcano, when photos of her embracing first responders were broadcast around the world.
But it was her response to Covid-19 that seemed to fuel her fierce election victory.
As early as February, opinion polls showed that the National Party on the center-right was leading. But now, although no cases have been reported, Ardern has banned foreigners from or through China from entering the country.
She said she did not apologize for the measures, which will soon include closing the borders to all non-citizens and non-residents and imposing quarantines even for the return of kiwis.
Today, New Zealand has less than 1,900 confirmed cases of coronavirus and only 25 deaths. That’s about 320 cases per million – compared to about 25,000 per million in the United States.
It is difficult to make direct comparisons with New Zealand, a sparsely populated, geographically isolated group of islands without land borders. The pandemic has also pushed the country into the deepest economic recession in decades.
That hasn’t stopped Ardern from being thrown out by liberals as the antithesis of Trump and other nationalist leaders like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Her down-to-earth style is possible in New Zealand because of what Kumarasingham calls “intimate democracy” in the country. The smaller population and simple system of government mean that the polarization observed in other countries – where politicians are either hated or revered – is largely absent.
“New Zealand has long been seen as a haven against political excesses,” he said. “It’s normal to have ‘normal people’ here as prime ministers. What’s different now is the profile Ardern has acquired abroad.”