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 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 minster in 160 years.
Adern grew up in 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 travelling 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 Adern’s leadership, the polls took a sharp turn.
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 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 71-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 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.
Adern told a press conference: “I feel extraordinary honoured and privileged to be a in a position to form a government.”