Jacinda Ardern, hero to liberals abroad, is validated at home

  • >> Damien Cave, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-10-18 03:55:11 BdST

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand claimed victory in Auckland on Saturday. Hannah Peters/ The New York Times.

Her face has graced magazine covers all over the world. Her leadership style has been studied by Harvard scholars. Her science-and-solidarity approach to the coronavirus has drawn legions of fans in other countries who write to say, “I wish you were here.”

The global left (along with a chunk of the centre) has fallen hard for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, giving her a prodigious presence for a leader who manages a smaller population than many mayors do. Now her country’s voters have come around as well.

On Saturday, Ardern, 40, was well on her way to a second term. With most of the votes counted, her Labour Party was projected to win a clear majority in Parliament, with around 64 of 120 seats and 49 percent of the vote — its strongest showing by far since New Zealand overhauled its electoral system in the mid-1990s.

Riding a wave of support for her “go hard, go early” response to the coronavirus, which has effectively been stamped out in the country, Ardern has now cemented her position as New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in generations, if not ever.

“We will govern as we campaigned — positively,” Ardern said Saturday, adding: “We will build back better from the COVID crisis. This is our opportunity.”

In New Zealand — where the love for Ardern had generally lagged behind her profile abroad — she now has a mandate more in line with her international adoration. What’s unknown is whether that will help deliver major policy successes.

“She has significant political capital,” said Jennifer Curtin, the director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland. “She’s going to have to fulfil her promises with more substance.”

In a parliamentary democracy like New Zealand’s, legislation can move quickly, which means the success or failure of new policies will fall squarely on her shoulders.

Ardern has said little about her legislative plans. She won primarily with a pandemic-fuelled surge in support, as New Zealand recently declared community transmission of the coronavirus eliminated for a second time.

The Pacific Island nation of 5 million people, which has tallied only 25 coronavirus deaths, now looks and feels mostly normal: A recent rugby match between Australia and New Zealand in Wellington, the capital, drew 30,000 fans.

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