WELLINGTON -- New Zealand's main opposition party replaced its leader Tuesday just over seven weeks before national elections as its poll ratings sank to new lows, signaling a fourth successive loss.
Andrew Little resigned as leader at a caucus meeting of the center-left Labour Party and was replaced by deputy leader, 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern. Little's position was weakened by the poor polls and exacerbated by his admission in a weekend interview that he had offered to step down in meetings with senior colleagues following the ratings decline.
Some see the decision for a leadership change so close to the Sept. 23 election as panic in Labour's ranks. But the party is hoping the relentlessly positive and relatively youthful Ardern will contrast with Little's dour manner and win over voters, especially women and the young.
"The situation we have found ourselves in is not what anyone expected or wanted," Ardern told reporters after she won the leadership. "Granted, I am a young proposition for the party but ... I absolutely believe that I am up to the job."
Support for Little among senior Labour legislators reportedly slipped in the last 24 hours and it was clear by Tuesday, he did not have the support of most. He told reporters after quitting that he took responsibility for the party's popularity plunge.
"I do take responsibility and believe that Labour must have an opportunity to perform better under new leadership through to the election," the 52-year-old former union leader said as he announced his departure after nearly three years as leader.
Polls suggest the ruling center-right National Party is likely to win a fourth consecutive election, the first time this has been achieved in New Zealand politics since the early 1970s.
New Zealand has continued to thrive under the National Party, as the economy is still growing at around 3% per annum and unemployment has declined to under 5%. However, there are growing perceptions of rising inequality and worries about the impact of immigration on slow wage growth, rising housing prices and strains on infrastructure.
A Colmar Brunton poll released at the weekend put National at 47% percent, while Labour slipped to a 20-year low of 24%. They were trailed by Labour allies the Greens on 15% and the populist New Zealand First on 11%. The Labour Party's own poll reportedly put Labour on just 23%, down from 29% in June.
Prime Minister Bill English said the upcoming election would be tight, regardless of who was leader of the Labour Party, adding Ardern was a "competent politician."
"The real problem for her is the Labour Party and its lack of progress over nine years in opposition. In the end, that's what put the pressure on Andrew Little," English said. "I think she's got some real challenges, particularly with the lack of momentum and ideas within the Labour Party."
Ardern has been Labour's fresh face since she was elected to parliament in 2008. She was subsequently made deputy leader in March this year. In 2007, the former policy analyst for ex-Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark served as president of the International Union of Socialist Youth.
She will be the fifth person to lead the Labour Party since 2011. Successive Labour leaders had been unable to unseat the popular National Party Prime Minister John Key, who shocked the nation of 4.8 million when he resigned from his role in December. National's poll ratings have slipped slightly since English took over.
University of Canterbury Political Scientist Bronwyn Hayward said the leadership change could allow the Labour Party to regain the attention of voters.
"The sleepwalking to victory for National is all over now because when you have such a significant change, people will be talking about it and looking at the new leadership," Hayward told Radio New Zealand.
Labour's poll numbers could quickly improve following the leadership change, she said.