Developing: New Zealand’s new prime minister Jacinda Ardern marks first shift to the left in a decade

Jacinda Ardern was the deputy of a failing party when she was handed the reins to Labour. She said she didn’t want to be the leader.

But on Thursday, 26 days after New Zealand’s general election failed to produce a decisive result, the 37-year-old became the country’s youngest prime minister in 160 years.

Ardern grew up in a Mormon family and has been a Labour Party member since her teens. She worked for former-prime minister-turned-United Nations-development head Helen Clark before traveling overseas. She had a stint in London working as a policy adviser in the UK Cabinet Office and also served as president of the International Union of Socialist Youth.

It was only a few weeks before New Zealand’s general election and Labour was sliding in the polls. It was assumed that the incumbent National party, led by Prime Minister Bill English, would cruise to victory. But when then-Labour-leader Andrew Little stood down and announced Ardern’s leadership, the polls took a sharp turn.

It was labelled “Jacindamania.” She was called “stardust.” She spoke to a younger generation of voters – one which was frustrated by escalating house prices and voter fatigue. She said climate change was one of the most important challenges facing New Zealand. But come polling day, despite the lofty titles, breathless media coverage and energized younger voter base, National still gained the most votes.

National received 44.4 per cent while a Labour and Greens block gained 43.2 per cent of the vote.

However, under New Zealand’s proportional election system, known as MMP, a majority of votes does not necessarily mean victory. In the proportional system, the proportion of votes a party gets will largely reflect the number of seats it has in parliament.

So it came down to a maverick MP named Winston Peters who, at 72-years-old, relished the role he would come to play. He negotiated with both Labour and National, seeking the best deal for his own party and himself. On Thursday evening, New Zealand time, he finally declared that he would go with Labour. He was offered the deputy prime ministership.

Peters said Ardern had “exhibited extraordinary talent” on the campaign trail and took the party from a “hopeless position to a position where they’re in office and government today.”

“Our perception was the people of this country did want change and we’ve responded to that.”

The decision marks a sharp shift to the left for the first time in nine years. The country had been led by charismatic former investment banker turned politician John Key.

His successor Bill English, who had coveted the role of prime minister for more than a decade, will be left in opposition. Even he called Ardern’s performance “remarkable.”

Ardern told a press conference after the announcement: “I feel extraordinary honoured and privileged to be a in a position to form a government.”

However, commentators agree that the challenge will now be the concessions that Ardern made to Peters and his older voting base. They will have found common ground on trying to curtail excess immigration and likely implementing a capital gains tax to curb the cost of housing. However, Ardern also wanted to explore a “water tax” on companies using irrigated water, mainly for agriculture. Peters, who also has a large rural voting base, was opposed to it. That plan seems to have been dropped.

Fairfax political reporter Vernon Small said regardless of the concessions the result would lead to “the biggest change of economic direction since the reforms that started 33 years back in 1984.”

Tracy Watkins called the concessions “the price of power.”

“It was a price Jacinda Ardern was prepared to pay, and one that Bill English judged as too high. Over the coming days and hours we will find out more about what finally tipped Winston Peters hand in Labour’s favor. But for now we know enough. After days of hard ball negotiation, and talks that Peters dragged out till the 11th hour, Ardern just wanted it more than English.”

Right wing commentator Mike Hosking called the whole deal “a mess” and one that promised to be a “tumultuous ride.”

He also hoped that English would not quit.

“Mainly because he didn’t lose, he just didn’t get picked. And that’s the madness of MMP.”


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