Jacinda Ardern shows what real democratic leadership looks like - analysis

Ardern’s message is one that resonates with many people in the world who would like to see not only younger leadership but also changes in power.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the media in the aftermath of the eruption of White Island volcano, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, at Whakatane, New Zealand December 13, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/JORGE SILVA)
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the media in the aftermath of the eruption of White Island volcano, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, at Whakatane, New Zealand December 13, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/JORGE SILVA)

New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has provided an inspirational message on how leaders should come and go and provide a space for new leadership to take over. She spoke about how important it is for a leader to know when it is time to go, as she said she wanted to show leaders “can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused that you can be your own kind of leader, one who knows when it’s time to go!” 

Ardern came to power in 2017, being one of the world’s youngest leaders at age 37, and the youngest female head of state at the time. As she leaves office, New Zealand will now have to search for new leadership as it heads to elections in October.

Ardern was controversial in some ways, especially during the harsh policies New Zealand enacted during Covid, policies that were praised at home but which were anchored in a “zero-Covid” approach which the world now knows doesn’t work. Nevertheless, as a democratic leader, she often served as a role model for other countries and an inspiration.  

These days, Ardern isn’t the world’s youngest leader. The prime minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, was only 34 when she came to power in 2019. These are examples of how some democracies are choosing young leaders.

However, other democracies are not following their model. The US president was born in 1942. The Vietnam war was still taking place when Biden was in his 30s. Basically, when Biden was the age of Ardern and Marin coming to power, he was living in a time without cell phones and without laptop computers or the internet. His US political opponent, Donald Trump, was also already in his thirties back in the 1970s. For many Americans, the choice is between two men whose formative years were in the 1980s.  

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a news conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 13, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/MARTIN HUNTER)New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a news conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 13, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/MARTIN HUNTER)

In other countries, people have had to watch their democratic systems fade and watch one-man rule become the norm. In Russia, Vladimir Putin came to power in the early 2000s and he will likely never leave office willingly. In Turkey, the ruling party has become unprecedented in its authoritarianism, jailing opposition members for minor insults, and cracking down on all independent media.

Similarly, in China, the usual turnover of ruling men of the Communist Party has now broken down and only Xi Jinping is in power.

The world is becoming more authoritarian

Ardern’s message is a major contrast to a world that is becoming more authoritarian: a young leader leaving office and showing the kind of contrition and modesty that once defined some of the world’s democracies.

But in other democracies, such as Israel, there is no change. The same prime minister continues to hold office for more than a decade, after a brief change in power, and the team at the top includes some of the same faces that continue to haunt politics and never leave.

Of course, some will say that a country like Israel or the US needs a strong leader rather than frequent chaotic changes in power – Israel is not New Zealand. However, there is much to be said for having younger leaders who know when to pass the baton, and whose experiences are rooted in what the average person experiences today, such as using a cell phone, as opposed to men whose formative years were the 1980s.

Just next door to Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority is an example where all the leadership seems to have been cemented in the past. No elections, no democracy, just a one-party rule and greying men whose experiences were shaped in the 1970s and whose mentality hasn’t changed much since then.

That’s not the case across the Middle East, there are some younger leaders, like the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. However, much of the region has leadership and systems that don’t believe in change; whether it is the Assad regime or the politics of Lebanon. Generally even when there are young leaders, they merely come to power the way Saad Hariri came to leadership of his party, passing from father to son.  

Ardern’s message is one that resonates with many people in the world who would like to see not only younger leadership but also see changes in power. They’ve had to listen to the same angry speeches for a decade by authoritarians in places like Ankara and they wonder if they will ever see a change; whether it is in Cuba, Venezuela or Moscow.