The last time New Zealanders voted in a general election, they were choosing between two women who were self-professed feminists. Three years later, in a sign of how sharply the pendulum has swung, they will pick between two men named Chris.
Ahead of next month’s polls, and 130 years after New Zealand became the first country to grant women the vote, the political landscape is in many ways unrecognizable from the era of former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose pursuit of women’s rights and gun control transformed her country’s image abroad.
Issues like pay equity, child poverty and the prevention of domestic violence and harassment have seldom featured in the current campaign. Female politicians across the spectrum now say they face extraordinary abuse from a misogynistic and sometimes scary slice of the population. Some women say they did not seek office because of safety fears.
The next government is likely to be significantly less diverse than the one led by Ms. Ardern, and the most conservative in a generation. Polling suggests that Ms. Ardern’s center-left Labour Party, and her successor as prime minister, Chris Hipkins, will be voted out. The current opposition leader, Christopher Luxon, of the center-right National Party, is expected to form a coalition government with Act, a libertarian party.
“It feels like politics here is just different,” said Michelle Duff, who wrote a biography of Ms. Ardern and lives in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. “It does feel like a scary time in politics for women — which is incredibly disappointing, when you think about how hopeful things seemed.”
It is a daunting legacy for Ms. Ardern, who became a global liberal icon but whose government was criticized at home for not delivering the transformational change that it promised.
After steering New Zealand through multiple crises, Ms. Ardern was re-elected in a landslide in 2020. She was lauded for her response to the coronavirus, but, eventually, public opinion soured over the country’s path to recovery from the pandemic. And even as her personal popularity remained high, her government struggled with the seemingly intractable problems of housing, inflation and rising crime.
In January, Ms. Ardern said she would leave politics after five and a half years in office. “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she told reporters at the time.
Since her departure, her party has stumbled. Four top ministers quit suddenly and, in some cases, dramatically, with one facing legal difficulties and another defecting to another party.
When Ms. Ardern formally retreated from political life in April, Heather du Plessis-Allan, a conservative political commentator in New Zealand, described her as “one of the worst” prime ministers in the country’s history and questioned whether she had accomplished anything in her tenure.
“She’s left behind no achievements worth mentioning,” Ms. du Plessis-Allan wrote.
Advocates for women disagree.
Under Ms. Ardern, they say, New Zealand extended paid parental leave from about four months to six months, decriminalized abortion, introduced free menstruation products in schools and strengthened pay equity and domestic violence laws. Her government was the most diverse in New Zealand’s history — more than half of the lawmakers in office are women. And the world-leading response to the coronavirus pandemic spared the country the sustained lockdowns that elsewhere forced many women out of paid work to take on more child care responsibilities.
“Her leadership will be a story that is just passed on and on, by women, especially,” said Marilyn Waring, a former member of the National Party. “To have been a girl child who was a feminist growing up while Jacinda Ardern was prime minister would have been incredible.”
But where some saw inspiration in her “politics of kindness,” others perceived a threat.
“As soon as Jacinda showed a different style of leadership which is more feminine in nature than other people have been allowed to be, there was huge pushback,” said Suzanne Manning, the president of the National Council of Women New Zealand. “It’s designed to silence women,” and some decided to stay out of politics over safety concerns, she said.
Marama Davidson, the co-leader of the left-wing Green Party, has felt the change.
“As a brown woman in politics, things are particularly hostile,” said Ms. Davidson, who is Māori. All her public appearances are now vetted beforehand by security personnel, she said.
Nicola Willis, the dynamic deputy leader of the National Party, who is widely expected to helm her party in the future, said the abuse affected women across the political spectrum.
“I’ve had all sorts of abuse hurled at me — ‘rotten cow,’ the ‘b-word’, some pretty choice adjectives,” she told the public broadcaster Radio New Zealand last year. “People saying, when I’m being feisty about something, that it must be that time of the month. I’ve learned to laugh most of it off, but, of course, it’s not OK.”
Women’s issues, which were at the center of Ms. Ardern’s platform, have scarcely featured in the election campaign of the two main parties. One issue that has — paid parental leave for non-birth parents — has struggled to find momentum or consensus, as lawmakers across the political aisle have stymied one another’s efforts.
This worries experts like Ms. Manning, who fear the next government could walk back some hard-won gains that were the result of years of consultation.
Ms. Ardern’s steady work on these issues eventually helped to lift more than 75,000 New Zealand children out of poverty, even as her party fell short of its stated goal of 100,000, said Ms. Duff, her biographer. “The symbolic nature of what she’s done shouldn’t be underestimated, either, in terms of inspiring women to get into politics,” she said.
Ms. Davidson, of the Green Party, worked closely with Ms. Ardern and had counted her as a colleague and a friend. “Her intentions, her purpose or objectives, her values and vision. I absolutely stand by what she wanted for this country,” she said. “We had different ideas of how to get there.”
Ms. Ardern is currently undertaking a fellowship at Harvard University and plans to write a book about her leadership.
Speaking on “Good Morning America” this week, she said, of her time as New Zealand’s premier, “I hope it was a call to anyone who is holding themselves back.”
For now, she is staying out of the political fray at home.
“I’m quite sure she would say that she never achieved what she wanted to,” said Ms. Waring, the former National Party lawmaker. “But she certainly rolled the barrel along.”