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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern plans to leave office next month


Some other news now. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern surprised her country and the world by saying she will resign.


PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: I am leaving because with such a privileged role comes responsibility - the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not.

INSKEEP: Ardern became the world's youngest female head of government when she was elected prime minister at the age of 37. Five years later, at age 42, she's had enough.

Farida Jalalzai is professor of political science at Virginia Tech, where she studies the role of women as national leaders. Welcome to the program. Good morning.

FARIDA JALALZAI: Thank you so much. It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: Were you surprised by this announcement?

JALALZAI: I was absolutely shocked. I had no idea that this announcement was coming. I thought that she would certainly be running in the next elections. And I was receiving many emails and shocked messages from my colleagues around the world as a result.

INSKEEP: What place did she establish for herself - and, I suppose we should say, for women as world leaders - over the last five years?

JALALZAI: Well, I think that there's a lot to unpack. I think, as a leader, just in general, she has been a role model in showing the power of empathy and kindness and compassion, that these traits can really go a long way, and they can coincide with strength and determination. And she has, I think, an example that illustrates the importance of pragmatism, the valuing of consulting experts and understanding that sometimes it makes most sense to pivot given the circumstances, rather than just sticking dogmatically to strategies that aren't effective or even harmful. She was also an expert communicator, especially during times of crisis. And she had a lot of crises to deal with in her 5 1/2 years. And instead of just saying what the public wanted to hear, I think the public took comfort in her saying things that were just honest, but also reinforcing that she would help her nation through unprecedented challenges.

Obviously, we think of the importance of her being a woman at the helm. And I think, in general, she shows that true leaders don't just hold power for power's sake, but are motivated by a commitment to a larger agenda. As for women, I think she's someone who has served as an inspiration for many women. And we don't see a whole lot of women in high political posts. And so, though she's resigning, I think that her influence will be seen for decades to come.

INSKEEP: When you talk about her approach to crisis, are you thinking about her management of the pandemic, where New Zealand, we should recall, shut down, closed its borders for a long time and had very few cases for a long time?

JALALZAI: Yes. And of course, that came with some consequences and some criticisms that they had gone too far. But what she did, I think really masterfully, was prioritize the health of her people above everything. And when you think about the crises that she's dealt with - of course, right now New Zealand is experiencing economic problems - but I think with her looking ahead during the very beginning of COVID to how, as an island nation that relies a great deal on tourism, that there could have been a huge economic disruption in New Zealand, but strategies that she implemented to make sure that these threats were offset from the very beginning. And the way that she would, on a daily basis, communicate with the parliament and with the public and essentially when she realized, or her government realized, that they weren't going to be able to have a zero-COVID policy, they pivoted. And I think that's something that her crisis leadership also shows.

INSKEEP: She got a lot of attention on social media recently when she met with the leader of Finland, who is also a woman who is relatively young. And they were asked a question about, what does it mean? The two of you are here, and you're very young and so forth. And I believe they both effectively responded by saying, we're here to talk about substance. We're here to talk about policy. Does that say something about Ardern's governing style?

JALALZAI: It does because it shows that she's going to be willing to call out inequity and the discrimination that women, even at the highest levels, experience at the helm. And so I think that sends a larger message of how she can lead but also call out inequalities and is a proponent of feminism.

INSKEEP: Farida Jalalzai is a professor of political science at Virginia Tech. Thank you so much.

JALALZAI: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.