New Zealand's popular prime minister resigns out of nowhere

December 5, 2016, 2:20pm

New Zealand’s John Key on Monday became the second prime minister in the space of a news cycle to announce his plans to resign, not long after his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi, said he too was stepping down.

But unlike Renzi, who had already planned to quit if the Italian public voted “no” in Sunday’s referendum on constitutional reform, Key faced no such challenge to his leadership.

With no scandals engulfing his premiership, the announcement at his weekly press conference Monday landed as a bombshell.

“This has been the hardest decision I’ve ever made, and I don’t know what I’ll do next,” said the 55-year-old. “But for me this feels the right time to go.”

Eight years after he took the country’s top job, Key’s center-right National Party government is still riding high in the polls — with approval ratings close to 50 percent — and looking strong to win a fourth three-year term in next year’s general elections.

He said the decision was motivated by a sense that the time was right to leave on his own terms. “A lot of leaders stay at the top too long,” he told reporters.

He also spoke of the pressures faced by his family, saying children Stephie and Max, both in their early 20s, had been subjected to “extraordinary levels of intrusion.” Stephie, a visual artist whose work features near-naked photographs of herself, and Max, a DJ, have both been a source of intrigue for New Zealand’s media and subject to scrutiny on social media.

Key’s background as a wealthy international currency trader made him an unlikely candidate to be a leader in egalitarian New Zealand. But he enjoyed a meteoric rise since leaving the world of finance to enter politics in 2002, becoming leader of the National Party — then in opposition — in 2006, before leading them into power in 2008.

Key’s knack for unnecessarily placing himself in awkward situations in front of the media gave plenty of fodder to his critics. He planked, he Gangnam Styled. He sashayed down a catwalk. He surprised reporters at a press conference by oversharing news of his vasectomy. Perhaps the biggest political crisis he faced personally was when an Auckland waitress revealed last year that he had a habit of jokingly pulling her ponytail every time he entered her cafe, prompting her to complain.

But on the whole, these quirks seemed only to endear him to middle New Zealand, which warmed to his easygoing nature and lack of pretension. Key’s “dorky dad” persona was a useful political asset for a millionaire currency trader turned politician.

His eight years in power provided a period of stability as the country negotiated the global financial crisis and a number of devastating earthquakes — in marked contrast to neighboring Australia, which saw four people lead the country during the same period.

Throughout, Key proved a populist while eschewing conservative morality politics, supporting gay marriage and rejecting his predecessor’s attempt to play divisive, race-based politics by stirring up white grievance against the Maori population.

His shock departure now makes next year’s election into a much more interesting proposition. Key has said he supports his deputy prime minister and finance minister, Bill English, to succeed him. But the dour politician previously led the party to a crushing defeat 14 years ago, and lacks Key’s unlikely charisma.