“I did a little dance,” said New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, when asked how she reacted after she learned that her country had essentially banished COVID-19 from its leafy shores on June 8. She added that her young daughter, Neve, somewhat confused, eventually joined her. It was a classic Ardern moment, slyly funny, a dollop of humanity within a large serving of gravity.
Ardern’s comment was also a soft power mic-drop. Her style of leadership, which emphasizes authenticity, the importance of trust, and the priority of the common good, seems to have been well-suited to the pandemic: New Zealand only ever had 1,154 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, which led to 22 lost lives. In fewer than 100 days, however, New Zealanders will get to decide at the polls whether it’s also the right style for the nation’s next challenge—overcoming the economic bludgeoning it has taken.
International admiration of the leader of the Pacific island nation with few strategic resources and only 5 million people has been outsized ever since Ardern came to power in an unlikely election in 2017, becoming at 37 the youngest female world leader at the time. It grew as she deftly handled several crises, including a mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch. And it keeps growing. U.S. political scientist Joseph Nye used her as an exemplar at a June 11 Ditchley Foundation webinar, noting her crisis leadership was in strong contrast to that undertaken both in the U.S. and much of Europe. “She’s been a powerful unifying force,” he said. “She talked about ‘our [team] of five million.’”
Few in New Zealand would quarrel with Ardern’s handling of the pandemic. She gave updates nearly every day at lunch, reminiscent of old wartime radio broadcasts, but via social media. Her messaging was clear: she laid out four phases of lockdown and the conditions that had to be met to proceed from one to the next. She leaned heavily on the scientific experts around her and deferred to their knowledge. She let New Zealanders know that she was talking to leaders from all over the world, seeking the best possible data. If her compassion-led response to the Christchurch massacre showed that she was in touch with her heart, her science-led response to the virus telegraphed that she also knew when to trust her brain.
Of course, she had some help. New Zealand is small and reasonably affluent. As an island nation, its borders are comparatively simple to close. Its citizens are largely comfortable with government-led health initiatives and the use of the public purse to spread wealth around. In January of 2020, the economy was in surplus. Her right-hand man at the briefings, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield happened to be an expert in public health (and telegenic enough to inspire lovestruck music videos).
But is she the right person to clean up the economic aftermath of a global pandemic? In order to survive in lockdown, New Zealanders were given a percentage of their normal wage by the government, at a cost of $14 billion. That, along with other programs designed to rebuild the economy, means that the government plans to borrow an extra $50 billion in the next two years. This could see debt reach 53.6% of GDP by 2023. “The government has entered a program to borrow literally billions of dollars to support wages subsidies, corporate welfare and normal welfare, hoping for a recovery if or when a vaccine is found,” says James Kellow, a property financier who was a cautious supporter of Ardern before the crisis.
In an attempt to make some headway, the main opposition party, the Nationals, replaced their Oxford-educated leader Simon Bridges with Todd Muller, a Kiwi out of central casting — he’s built like an All Black rugby forward, and has a background in agri-business, specifically kiwifruit (he’s also the lawmaker to whom the phrase “OK Boomer” was originally directed, launching a million memes.)
In speeches so far, Muller has conceded that the Ardern government’s management of the crisis was impressive, but opined that it’s time for the fiscal conservatives to come and do their thing. “This election will be about the economy,” Muller said in one of his first public speeches as leader, but stressed to voters it was not the boring old economy that nobody can quite understand but “your job, your main street, your tourism business.”
This message may resonate in a country where tourism is the most lucrative export industry. “There’s a lot of small businesses in tourism that will be hurting or already closed,” says economist, academic and former MP Dame Marilyn Waring. “If I was the National Party and casting about for where might we make the best inroads in the shortest amount of time, small business is probably it. We can all see the shops that haven’t opened.”
Adding an extra wrinkle is that Ardern needs a much bigger win than in 2017. New Zealand has a representative system and Ardern only came to power when she formed an alliance with the Greens and the conservative New Zealand First party. Its colorful leader, Winston Peters, who is the Deputy Prime Minister, has been caught up in several controversies and Ardern has not been able to persuade him to support some of her more ambitious anti-poverty and pro-climate policies. She needs an outright victory for her Labour party to make real change.
Both her detractors and her supporters seem to believe she can pull it off and the polls agree, putting Labour a stunning 26 percentage points ahead of the Nationals, possibly popular enough to form a government without NZ First or even the Greens. Her detractors think people will overlook the national debt — “she is an excellent communicator handing out large amounts of money, this has camouflaged any policy failures,” says Kellow. Her supporters think she’s earned a second term. “I think probably a significant number of New Zealanders across the board have noticed her anew,” says Waring. “There’s a new level of respect.” In a gesture of empathy with the sacrifices New Zealanders are being asked to make, Ardern and her cabinet members all took a 25% pay cut.
For now, the Prime Minister is focusing solely on domestic affairs (her office declined an interview request from TIME). The issues that plagued New Zealand before the pandemic still remain: child poverty, unequal treatment of Maori and Pacific island people by the criminal justice system, widespread homelessness, a high rate of youth suicide. It very much looks like having dispatched the coronavirus, Ardern will get a chance to take on problems for which there will never be a vaccine.