The leader of New Zealand’s opposition center-left Labour Party, Jacinda Ardern, has come from far behind to rival Prime Minister Bill English in polls ahead of the Sept. 23 general election. Since becoming leader on Aug. 1, Ardern has helped pull the party’s projected share of the vote from 26% to a 10-year high of 43%. Here’s more:
The police officer’s daughter, 37, says her working-class background has informed her politics: she grew up in a rural community on the country’s North Island and worked in a fish-and-chips shop to save for college. But her rise has been swift; before being elected to parliament in 2008, she advised Helen Clark, New Zealand’s first elected female Prime Minister.
Ardern galvanized female voters days after becoming the Labour Party leader when she rebuked a broadcaster for suggesting she might take maternity leave if elected. She has since fired up the youth vote by promising free higher education and legalized medical marijuana. Her age, liberal policies and overnight rise have led some to compare her to Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Critics say Ardern is a flash in the pan who lacks political experience. Labour faces an incumbent National Party that has been in power since 2008 and is credited for growing New Zealand’s robust economy. Even so, an election that was called by English to capitalize on Labour’s struggles in the polls is now looking like a nail-biter: an Aug. 31 poll put Ardern’s party ahead by 2 points.
This appears in the September 18, 2017 issue of TIME.