Jacinda Ardern, I see you.
She hasn't said it. So I will.
Yesterday, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made international waves when she announced that she would not lead her party into her country’s next federal election.
At home, her decision may not have came as a surprise. Her ruling Labour party has experienced a steep decline in the polls. Her personal popularity among the voters of New Zealand has also dropped to record lows. Much of this decline is ascribed to her government's strict COVID restrictions, as well as a perceived inability of Ardern's government to address New Zealand's cost of living crisis.
If Ardern had been looking at polling data that suggested another easy romp to victory, she might have been more inclined to head into another campaign. Her resignation remarks certainly suggested that she still saw merit in seeking the role, as she said, "I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have...".
In the end, Ardern attributed her decision not to reoffer to burnout. "I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have but also one of the more challenging. You cannot and should not do it unless you have a full tank plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges…..After going on six years of some big challenges, I am human. Politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can, and then it's time."
We should take her at her word. While Ardern had a politically tricky road ahead of her, she still had nine months to prepare for the general election. For an incumbent with Ardern's charisma, that could have been enough time to mount a comeback and frame her little-known primary opponent out as unpalatable. She had time to shuffle her cabinet, launch new policy, and cool any in-caucus dissent. Put another way, if she had decided to be all in, her government wasn't so far gone, and the election wasn't soon, that an election loss was a foregone conclusion.
But it would have taken a lot of effort to pull out a win, and even with that effort victory was far from assured. Ardern should be credited for her honesty. She did the math and felt she didn't have enough energy left to do the heavy lifting that staging a revival in polls would take.
But there's an additional weight that Ardern would have had to carry that another person in a similar situation won't have to.
Ardern has not attributed any part of her decision to the sexism she faced in politics, so I am reluctant to do it on her behalf. However, on that front, a comparison between Ardern's decision against the current political situation of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should give pause for thought.
There are so many similarities between the two that a comparison should be made. Trudeau, like Ardern, leads a left-of-centre party that currently governs a major economy. Like Ardern, he led his party to victory in the mid-to-late 2010s on a wave of personal charisma. And like Ardern, Trudeau's personal and party popularity has plummeted. And now, Trudeau is also facing speculation as to whether or not he will lead his party into the next election.
But there are critical differences between the two. While both Trudeau and Ardern have had to contend with increased threats of violence, Ardern has battled a higher degree of sexualized violence. Indeed, unlike Ardern, Trudeau hasn't had to deal with things like being asked if he was going to have babies as a qualifier for his suitability for serving as Prime Minister or being asked if he met with another world leader because of his age and gender.
There aren't obvious successors for either Trudeau or Ardern within their respective parties. However, while virtually every article about Trudeau's future includes the caveat that he's likely the best chance to lead his Liberals to victory in the next election, few reports about Ardern's electoral prospects raised that same point. When it comes to Trudeau potentially running in another election, he is frequently described as a "fighter," having a "fighting spirit," or "being ready for battle" despite his unpopularity. In the lead-up to her announcement, the same couldn't be said for Ardern.
This difference in coverage between the two is even more striking when Trudeau's massive volume of personal scandal is considered (blackface, WE Charity, Aga Khan island, SNC Lavalin, etc.). When it comes to embroiling oneself in political muck, when Ardern is compared to Trudeau, she looks like a political saint. Yet, even within more liberal-leaning press circles, in the context of their electoral futures Trudeau's sins are downplayed while Ardern's were played up. Trudeau's potential political comeback is something journalists seem eager to write about, while Ardern's press corps seemed to be content to write her off.
A recent landmark global survey found less than half of the respondents said they were comfortable having a woman as the CEO of a major company in their country. Trudeau competes in a political reality where all save one of Canada's major political party leaders are men. Ardern's primary rival in her election would have been former corporate executive Christopher Luxon, whose party has been trying to brand him as a steady hand to manage the a turbulent New Zealand economy. The study's gender dynamic is a factor Trudeau won't have to weigh in determining its impact on his electability. The reality is that Ardern did.
Justin Trudeau has maintained that he will reoffer. He's done so despite facing many of the same challenges that Ardern faces, being more unpopular, having a far more abysmal record in government, serving longer as Prime Minister, and facing an electorate that is possibly even more split, hurt, and divided than hers.
To encourage more women of all political persuasions to run, regardless of how one feels about Jacinda Ardern's record in government, I hope the world pauses to reflect upon at least one reason why this may be the case.
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