SYDNEY — Jacinda Ardern was on a work trip to a beach town in northern New Zealand almost exactly a year ago when her van was suddenly surrounded by anti-vaccine protesters. They called the prime minister a “Nazi” for requiring some workers get a coronavirus vaccine, and chanted “shame on you.” Some screamed obscenities. When a car tried to block Ardern’s exit, her van was forced to drive onto the curb to escape.
When asked about the incident a few days later, Ardern chuckled and shrugged it off.
“Every day is faced with new and different experiences in this job,” she said. “We are in an environment at the moment that does have an intensity to it that is unusual for New Zealand. I do also believe that with time it will pass.”
A little more than a month later, however, protests outside Parliament against vaccine mandates literally exploded into flames. Demonstrators set their own tents and gas canisters ablaze. Protesters pelted police with the same paving stones on which they’d written warnings to Ardern and other politicians that they’d “hang them high.” More than 120 people were arrested.
This time, Ardern didn’t shrug. Instead, she seemed angry and baffled.
“One day, it will be our job to try to understand how a group of people could succumb to such wild and dangerous mis- and disinformation,” she said.
In the end, New Zealand’s new era of intense rhetoric and dangerous disinformation will outlast Ardern, who announced Thursday that she was stepping down after more than five years in office.
“I know what this job takes,” the 42-year-old said in an emotional resignation speech. “And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”
Ardern didn’t mention the protests or the extreme rhetoric or the threats she faced. But she did mention the coronavirus pandemic. And in many ways, her management of the health crisis was her greatest success, but also made her a divisive figure in New Zealand.
“I think it will probably be her greatest legacy,” said Michael Baker, an epidemiologist who served as an outside adviser to Ardern’s government during the pandemic. He likened Ardern to Winston Churchill, who shepherded the United Kingdom though World War II only to lose the 1945 election.
“It’s very hard to even imagine navigating through such an extreme threat that has been so prolonged,” he said. “At the end of it there was a deep bitterness over the experience people had been through, and unfortunately to some extent it’s been directed at her even though she’s done an extraordinary job.”
Ardern acted quickly at the outset of the pandemic, closing her country’s borders to foreigners even though tourism is one of New Zealand’s biggest industries. That decision, coupled with stringent quarantine requirements for returning New Zealanders and snap lockdowns, kept her country largely covid-free until early last year.
By the time the virus did become widespread in New Zealand, the vast majority of adults had been immunized. As a result, the country of about 5 million people has recorded fewer than 2,500 covid-19 fatalities — the lowest covid-related death rate in the Western world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
New Zealand’s mortality rate is still so low that fewer people have died than in normal times, Baker noted.
For almost two years, the charismatic Ardern was the global face of “zero covid”: an approach that drew admiration from other countries and also seemed to dovetail with her personal style of consensus-based governance. In the fight against covid, she referred to New Zealanders as “our team of 5 million.”
But that sense of team unity began to fray in late 2021, when Ardern introduced requirements that some types of workers be vaccinated, and that proof of vaccination be shown to enter gyms, hairdressers, events, cafes and restaurants.
“From a public health view it saved many lives, but it had this political cost,” Baker admits. “It probably contributed to the intensity of the anti-vaccine movement in that it was seized on by some groups who called it the ‘overreach’ of the state.”
The same policies that made New Zealand and its prime minister a zero-covid success also made Ardern a lightning rod for anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine ardor.
“Because she was such a global and public symbol, she did become the focus of a lot of those attacks,” said Richard Jackson, professor of peace studies at the University of Otago.
“Their opinion was that she was destroying New Zealand society and bringing in ‘communist rule’ and yet the whole world seemed to be praising her and lauding her,” he added. “It irritated the hell out of them.”
Protesters began following her around the country, from the van incident in the northern seaside town of Paihia in January last year to a similar incident in the South Island a few weeks later, when Ardern visited an elementary school only to be called a “murderer” by protesters waiting outside.
By then, hundreds of anti-mandate and anti-vaccine protesters had gathered on the lawn of Parliament in Wellington. Some put up signs that mocked Ardern in misogynistic fashion or compared her to Hitler. Others hung nooses reminiscent of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the American capital.
The rise in extremist rhetoric and baseless theories in New Zealand has been partly fueled by far-right movements in the United States and Europe, Jackson said, including pundits such as Tucker Carlson, who often took aim at Ardern. The prime minister herself called it an “imported style of protest that we have not seen in New Zealand before.”
After increasingly aggressive behavior by the protesters, including some hurling feces at police, officers in riot gear began to clear Parliament grounds on the morning of March 2. Some protesters fought back, turning their camping equipment into incendiary weapons.
Ardern reminded people that “thousands more lives were saved over the past two years by your actions as New Zealanders than were on the front lawn of Parliament today.”
In the eyes of some, however, the moment marked a turning point for the country.
“The nooses, the misogyny, the hate, the level of people advocating violence, people threatening to hang politicians, that’s not part of the New Zealand tradition of politics,” said Alexander Gillespie, professor of law at the University of Waikato.
“It was a huge shock to the country,” said Jackson, who described the protests as the most violent since clashes during the 1981 visit of the apartheid-era South African rugby team. “The way it ended I think kind of brought home to everyone that what we thought of as quite moderate and peaceful and tolerant politics might have ended, and we now have a much more intense, polarized and extreme” atmosphere, he said.
The vitriol continued even after her announcement Thursday: The owner of a bar in Nelson posted a doctored photo of Ardern in a wood chipper being towed by a hearse, but took it down after receiving complaints.
In recent months, Ardern’s broader popularity had begun to slip. The Labour Party she led to a sweeping and historic victory little more than two years ago now trails its rival in the polls, and her party is widely expected to lose this year’s election.
Like Churchill, Ardern had led her country through a dark time, but eventually lost the support of a crisis-weary populace, Baker said.
But the decision appears to have removed a weight from the prime minister’s shoulders. She told reporters Friday morning that she’d “slept well for the first time in a long time.”