The country’s rigorous restrictions and vaccine mandates were initially popular with most New Zealanders. But as the rest of the world opened up and New Zealand’s borders remained shut, resentment began to grow, spurring a backlash and resulting in a crowd of protesters camping outside Parliament’s grounds in Wellington for more than three weeks.
Even as her party slumped in the polls, Ms. Ardern had retained a certain star power that her successor may struggle to match. Instead, Mr. Hipkins, who has been a lawmaker since 2008, may bring to the campaign a reputation as a champion debater and an experienced policymaker, as well as a face familiar to most in the country.
Certain idiosyncrasies and odd moments — including a well-known fondness for Diet Coke; a time when he posed with a birthday cake made entirely of sausage rolls; and, ahead of a news conference held in a nature reserve, the surprise appearance of his mother, who apologized for his lateness — have been memorialized in countless internet jokes, earning him the unofficial title of “minister for memes.”
In a news conference on Saturday, Mr. Hipkins, who has cultivated a political brand of being approachable and down to earth, said that he was “humbled and honored” to assume the party’s leadership and that he was “incredibly optimistic” about New Zealand’s future.
He added: “I’m a human being. I’ll make the odd mistake from time to time, I try and own the mistakes that I make. I don’t pretend to be someone that I’m not. I’ve never done that in the past. And I don’t intend to start doing it.”
A “boy from the Hutt,” as he described himself in the news conference, Mr. Hipkins grew up in the industrial and unglamorous Hutt Valley north of Wellington, the New Zealand capital.
He majored in politics and criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, where he was twice elected student body president. As a first-year student in 1997, he was arrested, strip-searched and detained overnight for protesting a higher education reform bill that he later said would “turn academic entities into corporate entities, treat students as customers.”