SYDNEY, Australia – Her face has graced the covers of magazines around the world. Her leadership style has been studied by Harvard scholars. Her scientific and solidarity approach to the coronavirus, which included answering questions in a sweatshirt after her daughter went to bed, has drawn legions of fans in other countries who write, “I wish you were here.”
The global left (and part of the center) has had a hard time with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, which gives her an amazing presence for a leader who manages a smaller population than many mayors. Now the voters of their country have come too.
On Saturday, Ms. Ardern, 40, was well on her way to a second term. The first results of a national election showed that their Labor Party should achieve a clear majority in parliament with around 66 out of 120 seats and 50.3 percent of the vote – by far the strongest result since the revision of the electoral system in New Zealand in the mid-1990s .
With a surge of support for her response to the coronavirus, which has been effectively eradicated in the country, Ms. Ardern has now cemented her position as New Zealand’s most popular Prime Minister for generations, if not ever.
The substantial gain reflects a rapid rise to political fame.
Just three years ago, Ms. Ardern was a last-minute election to lead the Labor Party, and in her first term she often struggled to deliver on her progressive promises, from affordable housing to eradicating child poverty and combating it of climate change.
After mastering responses to the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the White Island volcanic eruption, and a pandemic – not to mention the birth of their first child – she has quickly become a global bearer of progressive policies that consider themselves compassionate and competently defined in a crisis.
“The anti-Trump?” That’s what Vogue called her. “Saint Jacinda?” This is taken from the normally solid Financial Times, while an editorial in the New York Times last year was headlined: “America Deserves a Leader As Good As Jacinda Ardern.”
In New Zealand, a small conservative country or a small center where the love for Ms. Ardern abroad in general has lagged behind her profile, she now finally has a mandate that (almost) matches her international admiration. If Labor holds its margin, it will be the first time since 1951 that a party in New Zealand has won more than 50 percent of the vote.
It is unknown whether this will help achieve the major political achievements it has missed.
“She has significant political capital,” said Jennifer Curtin, director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland. “She will have to deliver on her promises with more substance.”
Mrs Ardern said very little about her legislative plans. It mainly won with a pandemic-fueled surge in support when New Zealand recently announced that community transmission of the coronavirus had been cleared for the second time.
The remote Pacific island nation of five million people, which has only recorded 25 coronavirus deaths, looks and feels mostly normal today: a recent rugby game between Australia and New Zealand in Wellington, the capital, drew 30,000 fans .
Given this progress, when the number of coronavirus cases increases in other countries, Ms. Ardern sailed through her campaign with the slogan “Let’s keep moving”.
Her opponent, Judith Collins, a lawyer and a member of the center-right National Party, tried to compromise her credibility by arguing that the virus had or reappeared on Ms. Ardern’s watch in August for violating protocol at the border in a quarantine facility.
In a handful of debates, Ms. Collins tried to portray Ms. Ardern as untrustworthy, more glamor as a steadfast leader. In the final days of the race, she called the Prime Minister a liar.
“She told us on June 23 that they were all tested. What a lie, ”Ms. Collins said at one of her last campaign events this week. “When she said she walked hard and fast, she became slow and pathetic. And she lied to us about what happened. “
Polls showed that Ms. Collins never gained much traction with such lines of attack.
But even if Ms. Ardern moves on to another term, her next government will face unfamiliar challenges.
New Zealanders have historically liked their politics in the middle. Coalition governments are the norm, and Ms. Ardern’s first term was marked by a partnership with the populist, right-wing New Zealand First Party, which is unlikely to win seats this time around.
Now Labor will be able to govern independently with the support of the Greens (they should win around 10 seats), which gives them more leeway to move to the left. This will put pressure on them to deliver on the progressive promises it has made for years to eradicate child poverty, resolve a housing crisis that has praised many middle-class families, and more aggressively tackle climate change.
The key decision Ms. Ardern faces is how far to go with what proposals, at a time when the economy is still threatened by the pandemic and the party she leads is still unsure of what it is to begin with her sudden happiness.
In a parliamentary democracy like New Zealand’s, legislation can move quickly, which means that the success or failure of new policies will fall right on their shoulders.
“If you can’t blame the small party for putting the handbrake on, you’d better make sure you deliver,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North.
One option would be to give up their usual preference for consensus and reach them as far and quickly as possible. The more likely election, say observers, is that it will realize it won partially with center-right voters and will dwell in the middle if it opts for a third or fourth term – a Labor dynasty.
At her core, Professor Curtin said, “She is more of a reformist than a radical.”
Morgan Godfery, a writer and commentator who specializes in political issues affecting indigenous Maori, said Ms. Ardern reflected the political environment from which she emerged.
“The Labor Party is a contradiction in terms right now because they are more popular than at any point since the 1940s, but they are more cautious,” he said. “They don’t seem entirely sure how to capitalize on this popularity. When it comes to housing, taxes and Maori, there are hardly any new considerations. “
During the campaign, Ms. Ardern ruled out a Green-favored wealth tax that would require people with a net worth greater than $ 1 million New Zealand, or about $ 665,000, to pay 1 percent of their wealth above that threshold as tax. Those worth more than $ 2 million would pay 2 percent.
When asked about a new idea to stimulate the post-pandemic economy during the second debate in late September, she gave a conventional answer.
“Invest in our people,” she said. “Make apprenticeship vacancies. Do the vocational training for free. Get them into professional careers that make the economy grow. “
Professor Curtin said Ms. Ardern’s response to the economic impact of the pandemic – with an emphasis on infrastructure, small businesses and exporters – in many ways reflected traditional thinking that overlooked industries like healthcare and childcare that are doing and promoting more for the economy could be greater equality.
“She said she was a feminist,” said Professor Curtin, “but she was cautious and perhaps a little too slow to address the material well-being of many women in New Zealand, especially poorer women or older women.”
Oliver Hartwich, executive director of the New Zealand Initiative, a center-right think tank, said Ms. Ardern has been a more effective communicator than a political strategist.
“When it comes to PR, when it comes to your daily press conference in the Covid crisis – taking people with you and explaining what they are doing and what they want to achieve – there is no one who comes close to what Jacinda is doing comes close. She is phenomenal and a real talent, ”said Hartwich.
“Where it’s not good,” he added, “it’s about the details of the policy, the details of the strategy, the execution, the execution, the evaluations, all the normal things that go with government.” It falls short there. “
For many voters this week, however, Ms. Ardern’s clear crisis management skills were more than enough.
Steph Cole, 58, a motel owner in Hamilton, said she normally cast her vote for the National Party. She voted for Labor for the first time after seeing how Ms. Ardern dealt with the Christchurch attacks and the pandemic to unite the country in a time of life and death.
“I just think Jacinda Ardern embodies everything a good leader should be,” said Ms. Cole.
Natasha Frost reported from Rotorua, New Zealand. Yan Zhuang contributed research from Melbourne, Australia.