SYDNEY – The response by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern following a brutal terror attack against two mosques has earned her praise and admiration from around the world, with some voices even calling for her to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ardern, who assumed office in 2017 to become the Oceanic nation’s 40th PM, has been widely lauded for her solemn and dignified handling of the country’s worst-ever attack, in which an Australian white supremacist murdered 50 Muslim worshipers in cold blood in the South Island city of Christchurch on March 15.
“We were desperate to find the hero of the day and Ardern did what she felt was needed to be done at a difficult time like that and was able to reassure an entire country,” Ferran Martinez Coma, a political science professor at Australia’s Griffith University, told EFE.
Ardern immediately described the massacre as a terrorist attack, refused to mention the name of the attacker – as a way of denying him the notoriety he was presumably looking for – and announced she would be seeking a swift reform to New Zealand’s gun laws.
In addition, Ardern consoled the victims and their families in person and showed respect to the religion of Islam by wearing a hijab during the official acts of mourning.
She also made the minority community’s pain that of the whole country with the memorable phrase: “We are one, they are us.”
Ardern’s actions were soon commended by observers from disparate parts of the globe as a show of leadership and humanity.
For instance, an online petition on the website Change.org to award her the Nobel Peace Prize had garnered almost 48,000 signatures on Tuesday, while another one on its French counterpart, Avaaz, obtained nearly 3,500 pledges of support.
The prestigious American daily The New York Times said in an editorial that “America deserves a leader as good as Jacinda Ardern,” while the New Yorker magazine said that the Kiwi leader had “rewritten the script for how a nation grieves after a terrorist attack.”
However, the 38-year-old Ardern told the New Zealand media company Stuff that she did not think she was showing leadership, but rather she was just displaying humanity.
“In politics we can choose to model behavior,” she said. “I genuinely believe that all I am modeling are the values of New Zealanders.”
Ardern had already sparked significant global coverage last year after she gave a speech on women’s rights before the United Nations General Assembly, in which she made history by appearing with her baby in tow to highlight the challenge many women face when balancing their careers and maternity.
With a modern and liberal image, the Labour Party leader became her country’s youngest-ever PM at the age of 37 after reaching a coalition deal with the New Zealand First and Green parties.
Born in 1980 in the city Hamilton (located just south of Auckland), Ardern grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Morrinsville and in the town of Murupara, where 16 percent of children live in jobless households and 11 percent of those under the age of 15 suffer from food insecurity.
From her years spent in Murupara, Ardern said that she remembers the impact of the widespread lack of jobs and the consequences of not investing in children’s futures.
After joining the Labour Party at 17, she soon stood out among the party’s young cadre; she graduated in Communications Studies at the University of Waikato and later became the youngest member of New Zealand’s parliament in 2008.
In Aug. 2017, Ardern took over as the leader of the Labour Party from Andrew Little, which was followed by the victory at the polls a month later which triggered the “Jacindamania” phenomenon in New Zealand that has now spread beyond the nation’s borders.
Martinez Coma put the world’s fascination with Ardern within the context of a time that has seen the rise of leaders such as the polarizing president of the United States, Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s embattled PM, Theresa May, or strongman figures like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
The expert said that at the mainstream level, Ardern captivates many people, although that may not be enough to sway the vote of New Zealand’s more conservative citizens.
“We will have to see what she does in the next 10 or 15 years,” he said, adding that if she continued to show leadership and intercede in conflicts such as the one between Israel and Palestine, then she could start being compared to iconic figures like Nelson Mandela – who spent 27 years in prison – “and later we can think about giving her the Nobel.”