Stardust and steel behind New Zealand's 'Jacinda-mania'

Wellington (AFP) –


New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern has gone from rank outsider to prime minister-elect in less than three months, although she did not reach the top job in the manner most pundits expected.

The charismatic 37-year-old first had to win over voters to restore her centre-left Labour Party as a credible force in the September 23 election.

Then she had to spend weeks in tense negotiations to convince Winston Peters, the 72-year-populist who emerged as kingmaker from the poll holding the balance of power.

Ardern is now set to become New Zealand's youngest leader since 1856 and only the third female prime minister in the South Pacific nation of 4.6 million.

Her dizzying rise to power began on August 1, when she took the reins of an opposition Labour Party headed for a crushing electoral defeat.

Ardern was not widely known outside political circles at the time but soon connected with voters, prompting a bout of "Jacinda-mania" that lifted Labour's popularity 20 points.

Crowds treated her like a rock star at shopping malls and universities, while analysts compared her to Canada's Justin Trudeau and France's Emmanuel Macron.

For a while, it appeared she would sweep into office but the public's ardour cooled slightly as polling day approached.

Ardern's Labour and long-time partner the Greens eventually needed support from Peters' New Zealand First to gain the majority needed to form government.

How the deal with political veteran Peters impacts on her plans for reform and generational change remains to be seen.

- 'Worst job in politics' -

Ardern admits she was surprised at the public's initial response to a self-described "policy nerd" who never envisioned herself running for prime minister.

"I think we tapped into a mood for change, a sense that things can be a bit better than this, that there were things people felt uncomfortable about," she said.

Ardern argued that even though New Zealand prospered during the conservative National Party's nine years in office, too many people were missing out.

She offered a raft of socially progressive policies designed to redress the balance, appealing to young voters who were a crucial part of her victory.

Housing affordability, free tertiary education, environmental action and improved healthcare were constant themes at the hustings.

She vowed to slash immigration numbers and bar foreigners from buying houses in New Zealand amid fears offshore money is fuelling the rise in property prices.

Ardern also allowed glimpses of her personality to emerge, speaking of her liking for single-malt whisky and short-lived career as a music festival DJ.

She grew up in the North Island hinterland, where her father was a police officer. She credits the poverty she saw there with shaping her beliefs.

She was raised as a Mormon but left the faith in her 20s due to its stance against homosexuality.

After completing a communications degree, Ardern began her political career in former prime minister Helen Clark's office before heading to Britain to work as a policy adviser in Tony Blair's government.

She was elected to parliament in 2008 and in March this year became Labour's deputy leader, saying at the time that she was not ambitious and saw herself as a backroom staffer.

But Labour's top job was thrust upon her when her predecessor Andrew Little quit after the party's polling hit 20-year lows of 23 percent.

"Everyone knows I have just accepted, with short notice, the worst job in politics," Ardern said after becoming Labour's fifth leader in four years.

- 'Relentless positivity' -

Doubts about her temperament evaporated amid several feisty television debates with outgoing prime minister Bill English.

Voters also saw a steely side when a TV host told her that New Zealanders had a right to know her plans for parenthood before deciding whether to elect a young woman as prime minister.

"It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace," she responded, wagging her finger at the male presenter.

The campaign proved testing, despite her initial surge in popularity, as English rallied and launched a sustained attack on her economic credibility.

Her conservative rival dismissed Ardern's appeal as "stardust", claiming she would squander the economic gains achieved under National.

Ardern blamed a scare campaign on tax for a dip in the polls late in the campaign.

Ultimately though, the "relentless positivity" Ardern promised to maintain throughout the campaign allowed her to prevail against a tough rearguard action from English.

Her challenge now is to convert the optimistic promise displayed on the campaign trail into meaningful action while in office.