A fresh-faced Jacinda Ardern entered office 3 years ago promising “relentless positivity” – and New Zealand’s leader has needed it in abundance as a succession of catastrophes besieged the nation and tested her mettle.
In a hectic first term, Ardern has faced New Zealand’s worst terror attack, a deadly volcanic eruption, the country’s deepest recession in more than 30 years, and the shared global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Along the way, she also had a baby and became the international standard-bearer for progressive politics in an era of right-wing populist strongmen.
She had been in office barely 18 months when a white supremacist gunman opened fire in two Christchurch mosques during Friday prayers, killing 51 and injuring another 40 on March 15 last year.
Ardern’s deft and compassionate response to the gunman’s rampage of hate defined her image around the world.
When she donned a headscarf and comforted victims’ families after the shooting, it resonated globally. She would later describe it as a spontaneous gesture of respect to the Muslim community.
But she also won plaudits for decisive policy action, including swiftly enacted gun law reforms and a push to force social media giants to address online hate speech.
The New Zealand public will on October 17, Saturday, have a chance to render their own view of the 40-year-old’s performance, as she bids for another term in a general election.
Ardern’s campaign pitch has focused heavily on her government’s success in containing the coronavirus, with New Zealand recording only 25 deaths in a population of 5 million people.
She argues that only her center-left Labour Party can be trusted to keep New Zealanders safe with a combination of strict border controls and widespread COVID-19 testing.
“This has been a really tough time for New Zealand – we’ve had a terrorist attack, a natural disaster and a global pandemic,” she said.
“But in these tough times we’ve seen the best of us. We’ve been able to clear high hurdles and face huge challenges because of who we are, and because we had a plan.”
Indications so far point to Ardern winning a contest she has dubbed the “COVID election,” with Labour sitting at around 46% in opinion polls, 15 points ahead of the main opposition National Party.
Her personal rating as preferred prime minister is 55%, 32 points ahead of National’s Judith Collins, although well off the record 62 percent she recorded in July.
Ardern grew up in the North Island hinterland, where her father was a police officer. She credits the poverty she saw there with shaping her beliefs.
She was raised as a Mormon but left the faith in her 20s due to its stance against homosexuality.
After completing a communications degree, Ardern began her political career in former prime minister Helen Clark’s office before heading to Britain to work as a policy adviser in Tony Blair’s government.
She was elected to parliament in 2008 and in March 2017 became Labour’s deputy leader, saying at the time that she was not ambitious and saw herself as a backroom staffer.
Ardern transformed from self-described “policy nerd” to prime minister on a wave of “Jacinda-mania” after being thrust into the Labour leadership just 7 weeks before the 2017 election.
She made headlines again a year later when she became only the second prime minister in the world to give birth while in office – after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 1990.
After Christchurch she again offered comfort to the nation, when the White Island (also known as Whakaari) volcano erupted last December, killing 21 people and leaving dozens more with horrific burns.
Ardern has constantly urged New Zealanders during the coronavirus crisis to “be kind”, appealing for a unified approach from what she terms a “team of 5 million.”
Life within New Zealand has largely returned to normal after a strict lockdown earlier this year, barring a brief outbreak in Auckland that has now been contained. – Rappler.com