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New Zealand's prime minister has announced she's leaving office

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In a surprise announcement Thursday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she would be stepping down from office next month. The move shocked many across the Pacific island nation. But as Ashley Westerman reports, some analysts say the writing was on the wall.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered the news to her party today that she was leaving office, the 42-year-old was visibly tearful and emotional.

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PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It's that simple.

WESTERMAN: Ardern also called for general elections to take place on October 14 and that she would not be participating. The news of her resignation sent shockwaves through the country.

GEOFFREY MILLER: This is not something we were expecting today. She's caught us all off guard.

WESTERMAN: That's Geoffrey Miller, a political analyst with the nonprofit Democracy Project based in Wellington. While political commentators speculated this could happen, Miller says the global political superstar made it seem like she was going to stay for the election later this year. Ardern captured the international spotlight in 2017, becoming the youngest woman in the world to run a country. Miller says she quickly rose to fame by being the exact opposite of another certain politician who entered the world stage at the same time.

MILLER: In many ways, she was the anti-Trump figure. You know, she went off to the United Nations, and she decried isolationism. She really burnished an image of being an internationalist, of being a globalist.

WESTERMAN: She also won praise for standing her ground in a male-dominated world of politics. Here's her responding to a journalist's question when meeting her Finnish counterpart, who is also female.

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ARDERN: My first question is I wonder whether or not anyone ever asks Barack Obama and John Key if they met because they were of similar age. We, of course, have a higher proportion of men in politics. It's reality. Because two women meet, it's not simply because of their gender.

WESTERMAN: Ardern has tackled many crises while in office, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a volcanic eruption and shootings at two mosques in Christchurch. On the foreign policy front, Miller says Ardern pushed New Zealand to be more pro-American and more Western, signing a free trade pact with the European Union and aligning with the West in the Ukraine-Russia war. New Zealand's relationship with China, its largest trading partner, was probably her biggest foreign policy sticking point, Miller says.

MILLER: Public sentiment was turning negative towards China, but she had to try and find a way forward. And I think her consensus approach did help with this. But at the same time, she wasn't immune to these bigger geopolitical trends.

WESTERMAN: Despite her success abroad, Ardern's popularity at home has started to wane over the last year. As the pandemic slipped in priority, New Zealanders have become increasingly critical of her handling of the economy, rising inflation and mortgage rates and a perceived uptick in crime. David Cormack is with the political consultancy group Draper Cormack.

DAVID CORMACK: So people are doing it tough here, and people tend to want to vote for change in that situation. And so I think that her and the Labour Party - they are responsible for some of the loss of popularity. But others - it's sort of become a victim of circumstance.

WESTERMAN: In recent polling, Ardern's Labour Party is trailing the opposition National Party, led by a very conservative Christian, a rarity in New Zealand, Cormack says. An interim prime minister from Ardern's Labour Party is expected to be voted in this weekend to take over after she leaves office on February 7. Meanwhile, analysts say this may present an opportunity for someone from her party to rise to the top ahead of the general election, which is expected to be competitive. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Westerman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.