Jacinda Ardern stuns in New Zealand election win, but challenges loom

Jacinda Ardern’s strong communication skills and response to the coronavirus pandemic have been credited as a big part of her resounding win in the New Zealand election.

But when the confetti settles and the election party’s over, the returned Prime Minister must face up to a major challenge: Pulling the country out of a recession.

The 40-year-old secured a thumping mandate on Saturday and a likely parliamentary majority for Labour’s second term.

Labour Party leader and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern claims victory during the Labor Party Election Night Function at Auckland Town Hall

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern claims victory. Photo: Getty

This means that for the first time since proportional representation was introduced in 1996, Labour appears to have locked in enough seats to form government on its own without needing to form a coalition with a minor party.

Of course, it’s not the first time Ms Ardern has made history.

On this day in 2017, she became New Zealand’s youngest ever Prime Minister in more than 150 years, as well as the country’s youngest female government leader.

This all happened just two months after becoming the youngest person to lead the Labour Party.

Now, the internationally popular prime minister is set to claim the biggest single-party haul since her party won in 1938.

Congratulations from Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison congratulated Ms Ardern on Saturday night. “The PMs have always had a very strong working relationship, which will continue,” his spokesperson told AAP on Sunday.

Monash University political expert Zareh Ghazarian said Labor’s win was a “strong performance, but not an unexpected one”.

“They were in the box seat, they were election favourites and you didn’t really get a sense they were going to be losing to the Opposition,” Dr Ghazarian told The New Daily. 

Kevin Bonham, a Hobart political analyst, agreed, adding “everyone expected she was going to win”.

Challenges ahead

Like most leaders around the world, Ms Ardern has a mammoth task ahead, with the COVID-19 crisis plunging New Zealand into its deepest recession in decades.

The country’s GDP contracted by 12.2 per cent between April and June (compared with 7 per cent in Australia), largely due to hard lockdowns, a pause on tourism and a drop in international students.

Official data shows 90 per cent of New Zealanders who lost their jobs to the coronavirus were women, and child poverty remains an ongoing issue.

Dr Bonham said Ms Ardern was lucky to have been faced with an election now, and not 12 or 18 months down the track.

“That’s because all the leaders have big economic challenges when dealing with a post-COVID situation,” he told The New Daily. 

“What do you do when you can’t keep throwing money at things forever, and what do you do if you’ve got those economic challenges?”

Why Jacinda Ardern is a fan favourite

Ms Ardern has faced a “number of disasters in her time and has dealt with them all very well,” Dr Bonham said

Since Ms Ardern took the top job in 2017, the young leader has faced several national disasters.

The first was the Christchurch shooting on March 15 last year, when an Australian gunman open fire on Muslim worshippers at two mosques, killing 51 people and injuring 40.

Ms Ardern described it as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”.

She received global praise for rallying around the country’s Muslim community and condemning the “extremist ideology” behind the attacks.

Jacinda Ardern embraces a woman at Parliament just days after the mosque shootings. Photo: Getty

The second disaster was the Whakaari/White Island volcano eruption on December 9, which killed 21 people – including several Australians.

Again, Ms Ardern’s compassion was on full display.

She paid tribute to those who lost their lives in a nationwide minute of silence, and was pictured hugging emergency service members left traumatised by the explosion.

White Island erupted with deadly force in December 2019. Photo: AAP

“There’s a kind of personal appeal I think she has,” Dr Bonham said.

“She has an ability to talk to the people – she’s quite a different politician in that way.”

Months later, the coronavirus pandemic hit New Zealand.

Ms Ardern’s hardline approach of eliminating the virus has driven cases down to nearly zero, allowing the country to reopen months before others.

Australia’s Labor Party could learn some lessons

Dr Ghazarian said Ms Ardern’s re-election suggests “she has been an effective leader, an effective communicator, and has has been able to mobilise support within the community”.

As for Australia’s own Labor Party, he said “there are lessons” to be learnt.

“I think (the ALP) will be encouraged that a progressive brand of politics has been able to win an election, but when Labor tried that in the last election in 2019 – where they promoted a range of progressive policies – they didn’t do too well,” Dr Ghazarian said.

“I think there are lessons there, especially in terms of communication and the capacity to mobilise support.”

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