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New Zealand's prime minister unexpectedly steps down

After more than eight years in power, John Key said on Monday that it was the 'right time' to leave politics.

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New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announces his decision to resign and stand down from politics at a press conference in Wellington, New Zealand, Monday. Mr. Key stunned the nation on Monday when he announced he was resigning after eight years as leader.

Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald/AP

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New Zealand’s prime minister of eight years has stepped down, a move that appears to have come as a shock, even to his own staff.

Making the announcement Monday in a trembling voice, using words he had penned himself, John Key explained his decision at least in part by the toll his job had taken on his own family.

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"Simply put, it has, for me, been the most remarkable, satisfying and exciting time of my life," said Mr. Key, according to the Associated Press. "All I can say is that I gave it everything I had.... I left nothing in the tank."

Prime Minister Key had been widely expected to run next year for a fourth term, with his National Party the favorite to win the most votes, but with this new turn of events, the political landscape could be about to shift. The first step, however, will be for the governing party to settle upon a new leader and prime minister; Key said he will be supporting his deputy, Bill English.

Asked in an interview with the New Zealand Herald for assurances that there was nothing “untoward” behind the decision, Key described his marriage as “rock solid” and his health as "tickety-boo."

"In a way, no modern-day prime minister post-war has left on their own terms," said Key, and by stepping down now, he felt that New Zealand could demonstrate a "new way of doing things."

The outgoing prime minister has retained remarkable popularity ratings throughout his tenure, having successfully steered the country through the financial crisis of 2008, leaving it now with an annual growth of gross domestic product of more than 3 percent and a rate of unemployment below 5 percent.

He also earned praise for his stewardship in the wake of two devastating earthquakes in the Christchurch area.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, according to The Australian newspaper, texted his counterpart in New Zealand following the announcement, saying "Say it ain’t so, bro."

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"He has gone, as he said, while he is on top," Mr. Turnbull said. "He has retired when people are begging him to stay. He is a class act, none classier."

As for life after politics, Key had no particular plans, saying only that he would likely take positions on a couple of company boards, alongside international speaking engagements; he will remain in parliament long enough so that no special election is required ahead of next year’s general election.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.