The convincing victory of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the country’s recently-held election is important for more than just one reason.
First, Ardern has delivered the biggest election victory for her party in half a century. The 40-year old’s Centre Left Labour party secured 49% of the vote, and securing 64 seats in the 120 seat assembly in the recent election. The win gives Ardern and her party the opportunity to form a single-party government.
Second, at a time when right-wing political discourses are on the rise globally, the decisive victory of a centre-left leader stands out. At the same time, it may be argued that since New Zealand is a small country with a small population of less than 5 million, not much should be read into the electoral result.
Third, Ardern’s successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with other women leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing Wen, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, has been acknowledged globally. A study published by the World Economic Forum and The Center for Economic and Policy research makes this point and has attributed their success to a swift reaction to the crisis.
Fourth, at a time when the world is becoming insular, Ardern has been firmly pitching for open immigration policies, taken a strong stance against Islamophobia (something which leaders of other liberal democracies have failed to do) and repeatedly argued in favour of a more inclusive society. In March 2019, after a white supremacist killed 50 people at a mosque in Christchurch, the New Zealand Prime Minister expressed solidarity with members of the country’s Muslim community while donning a hijab (headscarf) – a gesture that received worldwide praise. In her victory speech, Ardern said that the world is becoming increasingly more polarised, and that “New Zealanders have shown that this is not who we are.”
Ardern has her task cut out on issues related to the economy given the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown. The national economy has already shrunk by 12% in the second quarter of this financial year. Like other countries, there have been widespread job losses. Some of the sectors, which have witnessed job losses, such as retail, hospitality and tourism employ women. According to estimates, a whopping 90% of people who have lost jobs are women.
Some commentators also believe, that the Labour government has not been able to deliver on key promises related to housing, child welfare and the economy. There is also an argument that Ardern’s first tenure was not transformational and after her win, the expectations from her will be much higher.
Foreign policy challenges
New Zealand, in spite of being a small country, has strong geopolitical significant. There are two important dimensions – New Zealand’s ties with China, and as a part of the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
As far as New Zealand’s ties with China are concerned, there are various layers to the bilateral relationship. Ardern’s government has largely gone along with other Five Eyes (FVEY) countries when it comes to the issue of allowing Huawei entry into New Zealand’s 5G network.
On issues pertaining to Hong Kong, the Uygurs and the South China Sea too, New Zealand has taken a firm stance against Beijing. After the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, New Zealand suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and made revisions to its policy on military and dual-use goods and technology exports to Hong Kong, subjecting the city to the same as the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
During her speech at the China-New Zealand Summit in July, Ardern had stated:
“As you know, this has come to the fore recently around developments like Hong Kong’s new security law, the situation of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province, and Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organisation.”
Like its neighbour Australia, New Zealand has also been taking cognizance of increasing political interference in its domestic politics via governments, political parties and universities. There has been bipartisan support for taking measures to check the same. Some policies have been introduced with regard to political donations as well as Foreign Direct Investment.
At the same time, New Zealand has a close economic relationship with China and this is strongly reiterated by figures. In 2019, China accounted for a staggering 33% of New Zealand’s dairy exports, over 40% of meat experts and contributed to 58.3% of international education earnings. It is estimated that in 2019, 87% of New Zealand’s service export earnings from China came from education-related travel and personal tourism.
While New Zealand has taken a strong stance on issues such as the imposition of National Security Law in Hong Kong and other policies where it differs, there is also a realisation that the country can not overlook close economic ties with China. A fine balancing act is needed.
The Trans-Pacific partnership
As part of the CPTTP, along with other countries, New Zealand worked towards keeping supply chains going in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance in April, New Zealand sent a chartered plane load of essential supplies to Singapore, ferrying commodities like lamb and beef.
New Zealand and other CPTPP members have also been working to resume essential travel. Singapore has opened a travel bubble with New Zealand on 1 September, which means that quarantine free travel will be allowed.
New Zealand and its neighbour Australia, another member of CPTPP, have also opened an air bubble. However, this is a one way route as yet, and only passengers from New Zealand can travel to Australia. The bubble currently is applicable to only two Australian states – New South Wales and the Northern territory.
Rejection of ‘strong man politics’
In conclusion, Ardern’s victory is important not just in the context of domestic politics, but in sending a message that there is space for centrist and inclusive politics. It also indicates that a ‘strong man’ image cultivated by many right wing leaders can be done away with.
It is also important to bear in mind, that liberal democracies, which respect diversity are in a far better position to provide an alternative narrative to that of China. Apart from this, while the shortcomings of globalisation do need to be acknowledged and addressed, inward looking economic and immigration policies need to be firmly rejected.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.