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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement to step down from New Zealand’s top job and to not contest the next elections does not come as a complete surprise to seasoned political watchers. The Wellington beltway has been rife with rumour since late last year – vehemently denied by senior leaders, including herself, when asked the question.

Pitchforked on to Labour’s leadership just months before the 2017 elections, Ardern, NZ’s youngest prime minister ever, rode on a tsunami of popularity in the wake of John Key’s abandonment of the National Party leadership several months before the election. His quitting effectively threw his party under the blue bus, though his rationale then was to give enough time for a new leader to lead the party into the election. Ardern has followed that same playbook. She has abandoned Labour at a crucial juncture and has all but sunk the party’s chances at the October elections, at least as things stand today. She leaves Labour when it is polling the lowest since she became prime minister.

Though her popularity had plummeted precipitously over the past year, she was still the face of Labour and ahead in the preferred prime minister stakes by a country mile. But as of now, there clearly seemed to be no way that she or her party had the political capital or the wherewithal to build a credible election plank for October. Quite obviously she has seen the writing on the wall and decided to take a leaf out of her predecessor’s playbook – quit while still ahead.

Her profile was built over her perceived success in handling multiple crises – Christchurch shootings, Whakaari While Island, Covid-19. Her ‘kindness’ approach to politics catapulted her to global fame in a matter of just a couple of years. Her international reputation is still up there, very much like NZ’s highly desirable ‘clean and green’ image, even though many in NZ have been increasingly thinking otherwise – if not anecdotally, then definitely going by recent polls.

Ardern truly leaves a vacuum –much like the vacuum that existed after Labour’s inability to come up with a credible leadership until they found Jacinda and Jacindamania ensued. Can Labour find another Jacinda Ardern like it did in 2017? It looks extremely unlikely. Her super-diverse team, feted by the world when it was put together, is young, inexperienced and light weight. None have the gravitas or the grassroots popularity that would foreshadow a future leader.

But even assuming if Labour repeats its 2017 act of finding another Ardern, this time round it will still have to contend with the considerable push back of that unavoidable curse of all ruling parties in democracies: anti-incumbency. Whatever runs Labour might have put on the scoreboard over its two terms, they have been overshadowed by highly controversial policymaking, flip-flops (cycle bridge), u turns (Three Waters), and a seeming inability to stay on top of effective messaging, particularly about complex issues like co-governance. The general perception is that her government has fallen woefully short on delivery of most of its election promises and failed to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable in society.

For the Kiwi-Indian community, the Labour-led government’s handling of law and order has been extremely disappointing and there is little doubt that this one issue would have lost Labour Kiwi-Indian support by the ton.

Whether its non-response to runaway ramraids and violent crimes or its ham-handed handling of future infrastructure projects like light rail, in recent months, Labour has increasingly looked like a battered vessel lost at sea, with its miniscule team of able-bodied ship-hands trying to steady it and correct its course. Ardern’s profile and reputation have overshadowed all of its caucus and it is hard to guess who will helm the troubled Labour ship into the electoral port come October.

Several senior leaders like David Parker and Kelvin Davis have announced their retirement over the past few months, effectively ruling themselves out of the leadership race. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson has said he will not throw his hat into the ring, having done so unsuccessfully before. That leaves the comparatively younger guard that has built up some reputation in the handling of their portfolios: Chris Hipkins, Kiritapu Allen, Michael Wood, Megan Woods and perhaps Peeni Henare.

The leadership election process itself will likely take close to two months from now if no leader is selected on Sunday. That will leave just six months for the new leader to get Labour’s electoral plank together while battling a slew of unprecedented crises –from rising inflation, cost of living and the ‘engineered’ recession to a woeful lack of workforce, housing, vaulting crime, immigration impasse, and a general  and growing sense of despondency in most Kiwis.

There could not have been a worse time for Labour’s leadership vacuum.

First appeared in the 23 January 2023 edition of the Indian Weekender.