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How Covid’s Bitter Divisions Tarnished a Liberal Icon

In a part of the world where coronavirus restrictions lingered, Jacinda Ardern struggled to get beyond her association with pandemic policy.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand last year. She won global fame with youthful charisma and a frank, compassionate leadership style that carried her through crisis but has since announced her resignation.Credit…Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

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Jacinda Ardern explained her decision to step down as New Zealand’s prime minister on Thursday with a plea for understanding and rare political directness — the same attributes that helped make her a global emblem of anti-Trump liberalism, then a target of the toxic divisions amplified by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms. Ardern, 42, fought back tears as she announced at a news conference that she would resign in early February ahead of New Zealand’s election in October.

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“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said. “It is that simple.”

Ms. Ardern’s sudden departure before the end of her second term came as a surprise to the country and the world. New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in 150 years, she was a leader of a small nation who reached celebrity status with the speed of a pop star.

Her youth, pronounced feminism and emphasis on a “politics of kindness” made her look to many like a welcome alternative to bombastic male leaders, creating a phenomenon known as “Jacindamania.”

Her time in office, however, was mostly shaped by crisis management, including the 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch, the deadly White Island volcanic eruption a few months later and Covid-19 soon after that.

The pandemic in particular seemed to play to her strengths as a clear and unifying communicator — until extended lockdowns and vaccine mandates hurt the economy, fueled conspiracy theories and spurred a backlash. In a part of the world where Covid restrictions lingered, Ms. Ardern has struggled to get beyond her association with pandemic policy.

“People personally invested in her, that has alway been a part of her appeal,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

The police eventually forced out the demonstrators, clashing violently with many of them, leading to more than 120 arrests.

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