Liberal hero overseas,
validated at home
In national polls, New Zealand's prime minister and her party are coasting to victory, but it's uncertain how far she can take her radical promises.
SYDNEY, Australia — Her face has magazine all over the world. Harvard researchers studied her leadership style. Her response to coronavirus, which included answering questions in a sweatshirt after putting her daughter to bed, has attracted legions of fans in other countries who write to say, "I wish you were here."
The global left (and a chunk of the center) fell hard for New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, giving her a prodigious presence for a chief who oversees a smaller community than many mayors. Now her country's electorate have even come around.
Saturday, Ms. Ardern, 40, was on her way to a second term. Early returns in a national election demonstrated her Labor Party's projection of gaining a simple majority in Parliament, with around 66 of 120 seats and 50.3 percent of the vote — the best display, by far, after New Zealand overhauled the electoral structure in the mid-1990s.
Riding a surge of support for her response to the coronavirus, which has been effectively stamped out in the world, Ms. Ardern has now cemented her place as New Zealand's most successful prime minister in decades, if not ever.
The big victory represents a fast rise to political stardom.
Only three years ago, Ms. Ardern was a last-minute candidate to head the Labour Party, frequently failing in her first term to achieve her radical commitments, from making homes more affordable to reducing child hunger and attacking climate change.
But after overseeing the reactions to the terrorist attacks on Christchurch, the White Island volcanic explosion, and a pandemic — not to mention the birth of her first child — she soon became a worldwide standard-bearer for a radical agenda that describes itself as humanitarian and crisis-competent.
"Anti-Trump? "Vogue called her that. "St. Jacinda? "This one comes from the generally prosperous Financial Times, while last year's New York Times editorial headlined:" America needs a leader as strong as Jacinda Ardern.
In New Zealand, a small-conservative or small-c center-like country where Ms. Ardern 's popularity had traditionally lagged her image internationally, she finally has a mandate that suits (almost) her foreign adoration. If Labor's lead holds, it will be the first time since 1951 that a party has won over 50% of New Zealand 's vote.
What's unclear is whether it would help achieve the big legislative wins she's eluded.
"She has considerable political resources," said Jennifer Curtin, Auckland University's Public Policy Institute head. "She would fulfill her promises with more substance."
Ms. Ardern revealed nothing about her policy ambitions. She won largely with a pandemic-fueled increase of funding, as New Zealand recently announced coronavirus population transmission removed for a second time.
Five million people from the isolated Pacific Island country, which has claimed just 25 coronavirus deaths, now looks and sounds largely normal: a recent Australia-New Zealand rugby match in Wellington, the capital, attracted 30,000 spectators.
Despite such success as other countries see elevated cases of coronavirus, Ms. Ardern sailed her campaign with the motto, "Let's keep going."
Her critic, Judith Collins, a lawyer and founder of the center-right National Party, attempted to dent her reputation by claiming that the virus had re-emerged under Ms. Ardern 's watch in August due to some sort of violation of border protocol or quarantine facility.
In a few debates, Ms. Collins tried to depict Ms. Ardern as untrustworthy, shinier than stable leader. She called the prime minister a cheat in the final race days.
"All were checked on June 23, she told us. What a lie, "Ms. Collins said at this week's final campaign activities. "When she said she went fast and hard, she went soft and pathetic. And she lied to us about what happened.
Polls found that with lines like this, Ms. Collins never achieved any momentum.
But although Ms. Ardern glided through another term, her next government will face unfamiliar challenges.
Historically, New Zealanders enjoyed their middle-down politics. Coalition administrations are the rule, and Ms. Ardern's first term was characterized by a coalition with the populist, center-right New Zealand First Party, this time expected to gain no seats.
Now Labor will be able to rule alone with the help of the Greens (projected to gain about 10 seats), allowing her more leeway to step left. This would raise pressure on her to meet the progressive commitments she has made for years to eradicate child hunger, address a housing shortage that has priced many middle-class families, and fight climate change more forcefully.
Ms. Ardern 's central decision is how hard to go, what plans, at a time when the economy is still threatened by the pandemic, and the group she heads is still unsure of what to do about her unexpected good fortune.
Legislation will pass fast in a representative democracy like New Zealand, ensuring the success or failure of new initiatives would fall heavily on her shoulders.
"If you can't fault the minor party for braking your hand, then make sure you deliver," said Richard Shaw, a political professor at Palmerston North Massey University.
One choice will be to abandon her normal majority preference to reach as far and quickly as possible. The more likely option, analysts claim, is to accept that she won partially with center-right votes and stay in the center as she angles for a third or fourth term — a Labor dynasty.
Professor Curtin said at her center, "she's more reformist than militant."
Morgan Godfery, a writer and columnist specialized on political issues concerning indigenous Maori people, said Ms. Ardern embodied the political climate she came from.
"The Labor Party is a contradiction at the moment since they've been more successful than anywhere since the 1940s, but they're more cautious," he said. "They don't seem sure if they'll use the success. There's no new thought about housing, tax, Maori problems.
During the referendum, Ms. Ardern rules out a Greens-favoured inheritance tax that would force people with a net worth of more than 1 million New Zealand dollars, or around $665,000, to pay 1 percent of their inheritance as tax above that threshold. Those over $2 million will pay 2 percent.
Asked for a new idea to promote post-pandemic economy in late September's second debate, she offered a traditional response.
"Trust in people," she said. "Free apprenticeships. Free vocational school. Get them into jobs that expand the economy.
Professor Curtin said that in many respects Ms. Ardern 's approach to the economic effects of the pandemic — emphasizing infrastructure, small enterprises, and exporters — reflected conservative thought that ignored sectors such as health care and childcare that could do more for the economy and promote greater equity.
"She's said she's a feminist," said Professor Curtin, "but she's been patient and maybe a little too slow in addressing many women's material well-being in New Zealand, particularly poorer women or older women."
Oliver Hartwich, New Zealand Initiative's executive director, a center-right think tank, said Ardern was a more powerful communicator than a policy strategist.
"When it comes to P.R., when it comes to her daily Covid crisis press conference — taking us along and describing what she needs to achieve and what she needs to do, there's no one else comes close to what Jacinda does. She's phenomenal and true talent, "said Mr. Hartwich.
"Where it's not nice," he said, "is about policy specifics, plan details, execution, compliance, reviews, all the usual stuff that come with government. That's where she's short.
But for many people this week, Ms. Ardern 's strong crisis handling capabilities were more than enough.
Steph Cole, 58, Hamilton motel owner, said she normally cast her National Party vote. She first voted Labour after hearing how Ms. Ardern treated the Christchurch attacks and the pandemic, unifying the world in moments of life and death.
"I think Jacinda Ardern represents everything a strong leader can be," Cole said.