I was 39 when I arrived in Helen Clark-led New Zealand in 2008. Having lived most of my life under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, and barely managed to survive the mayhem that followed his regime's overthrow in 2003; New Zealand seemed like a place where I could finally find peace.
And practice what I'd only heard and read about: democracy.
Prior to voting, I was keen to go through the policies of all competing parties. It didn't take long though to realise that I was on the same page with Labour. Progressive, liberal and pro-social justice; what more could I have asked for?
I still remember my enthusiasm as I slipped my first ballot into the box, and my disappointment at their loss. I kept voting for them in the consecutive elections, nonetheless, until they made it in 2017. The Labour Party didn't actually win, but managed somehow to form a coalition that led Jacinda Ardern to become our 40th, youngest and third female Prime Minister. That was one of my happiest memories in Aotearoa.
Meanwhile, the world was busy following the latest news from the White House. The liberal news media in the US, still absorbing the shock of Trump's election in 2016, kept their eyes open for a leader they could utilise to make America see, by comparison, the disaster that had befallen her. Their radar must have detected the rise of a young and charismatic female politician on the other side of the Pacific, but they probably deemed New Zealand too small, too far and too boring. It couldn't sell.
During the first year of her administration, Ardern was only occasionally mentioned outside New Zealand. But everything changed when a white supremacist opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch during prayer on Friday March 15, 2019, killing 51 and injuring many others in what was considered the worst hate crime in the country's history.
It wasn't at all easy to bring a horrified, wounded nation together the way Ardern did. The photo of her embracing the victims' families went viral. She became an icon of empathetic leadership, of which, the world appeared to be almost running out. Eureka! The "liberal" Anglo-Saxon moguls cried. They'd found what they'd been looking for.
Fast forward 18 months. Hardly a day goes by without a friend from overseas emailing or texting me about how fortunate New Zealanders are to be led by Ardern, and how impressed they were with her decisive response to Covid-19.
There's no denying that the Prime Minister is trying to save people's lives, and it sure takes guts to shut down a country for weeks on end, jeopardising its economy, but there was no alternative. Many hospitals are struggling with lack of funds, some facilities are in pretty poor shape. The health system is so vulnerable that larger outbreaks could lead to an absolute disaster. And it's not only the health system this Government has failed to fix. Poverty, infrastructure, housing crisis, to name a few, the Labour Party made huge promises, but delivered very little.
Crippled by a terribly difficult coalition. An impossibly entitled Greens on one side, New Zealand First, led by Winston Peters — arguably one of the biggest egos in the country — on the other. Halfway through their first term, the Labour Party seems to have given up on the fight for change, and settled for investing in Ardern's stardom as a means of securing a solid working majority in the coming election. Meanwhile, tackling the other issues only as they came to the surface, doing just enough to save face. A tactic that proved to be working very well.
A friend of mine described the Ardern phenomenon, saying it'd created a different atmosphere in the country. I think that's very true. It is a well-known fact here, albeit not often discussed in public: No matter how talented; Kiwi actors, singers, writers — and politicians, I dare add — are not big until they've made it big in the United States, and understandably, the United Kingdom.
Over the past year and a half, Ardern was ginormous. Many of us felt elated, as if on a high at the sudden surge in global recognition of the Prime Minster. And New Zealand.
Shouldn't I be proud of being a citizen of this privileged country? Isn't it the perfect redemption of my painful past in the Middle East? It did feel like that at first, until the side effects became too obvious to ignore.
The international glorification of Ardern, I noticed, was filling her and her party with a sense of great accomplishment that was, sorry to say, not always deserved. It was painting a rosy picture of life in New Zealand to rub in the faces of Trump's and Johnson's supporters. To be then recycled locally through flashy headlines, citing this or that posh American or British publication or platform.
For many Kiwis, adoring the Prime Minister became synonymous with patriotism, and it would manifest in various ways and places, including ones where it shouldn't.
Journalists have been attacked for daring to ask director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield slightly tough questions at his press conferences last month. Criticism and calls for accountability, online and in real life, are often met with insults and ridicule. The opponents on the other side are not holding back either.
Throughout my 12 years of living in New Zealand, political polarisation has never been wider, and more alarming.
Is this a healthy electoral environment? Do I really want to be part of it? I asked myself many times. The answer was always a bitter "no".
And so I've decided, with great reluctance, to be a passive voter. I'm leaving my ballot blank this year.
• Ali Shakir is an Iraqi-born, Auckland-based architect and author of A Muslim on the Bridge. He is also a regular contributor to Arcade (Stanford University) and a member of the New Zealand Society of Authors.