The result of the New Zealand election on Saturday was inconclusive. On the night the leader of the Labour Party Jacinda Ardern said “MMP will decide” who governs for the next three years. MMP or Mixed Member Proportional elections usually create coalitions. It has done so again.
The Centre-Right National party which has governed for the last nine years got more seats than any other. Under MMP the proportion of votes a party gets nationally determines its share of seats in Parliament.
For National, 46 percent of the votes was enough to hold 58 seats, not enough to govern in the 120 seat parliament. Sixty-one seats are needed.
In the last Parliament, National was supported by three minor parties. This time only one support party, the right wing ACT party got in with one seat, but that is not enough to get National over the line. Another government support party United Future disappeared a few weeks ago when its founder and single MP Peter Dunne resigned.
More dramatically, the other support party the Maori Party which had two seats in the last parliament lost both in yesterday’s election. Apparently New Zealand Maoris stopped supporting the Maori Party and went to Labour.
Labour with just 38.8 percent of votes can occupy 45 seats, thirteen fewer than National. Their closest ally the Greens won 7 seats, still not enough to form a majority with Labour.
This means the genial populist Winston Peters the founder and leader of the New Zealand First party will decide who will govern the country for the next three years. His party has 9 seats (7.5 percent of the votes on the night). He could lean either way. On election night he said he was not going to hurry his decision.
If Winston supports National, the coalition would have 67 seats, a comfortable majority without having to negotiate with ACT (one seat).
If he supported Labour and the Greens the three parties would garner 61 seats, a majority but only just.
It is often pointed out that the only consideration under MMP is whether a party can muster a majority. Emotions and any perceived “moral right to govern” are discounted. In this case, either side could reach 61 or over although National might claim a greater moral right with the most votes.
On the other hand it was a particularly dirty campaign. National’s fear tactics and disinformation against Labour and its new leader Jacinda Ardern were ruthless and effective.
Winston Peters, generally honourable, could decide that the National Party tactics should not be rewarded. There is also a suspicion that some deeply private and personal information that embarrassed Peters during the campaign may have been leaked by a National cabinet minister. These factors could influence him in against the obvious choice.
This isn’t very likely however. A powerful argument in favour of National is that however unseemly their tactics they won about ten percent more votes than Labour.
Therefore the most likely scenario, and this is sheer speculation, is a National-New Zealand First coalition with a nice juicy job like Foreign Minister for Winston Peters.
This could mean a rough three years for Prime Minister Bill English and his colleagues. Winston Peters is usually an independent minded, undisciplined and unruly ally, and while English and his cabinet struggle to hold their coalition together they would be tormented by a bold, articulate, well led opposition with a confident expectation of winning the election in 2020.
Here are some firmer facts about the election.
Voting is not compulsory in New Zealand. The expected “Youthquake” of young voters, expected in view of the relative youth and vigour of the new Labour leader, did not eventuate.
Of the population eligible to enrol, 78.8 percent voted, a high turnout for New Zealand.
Special votes and overseas votes could make small changes to the outcome. If special votes have the same effect as they did three years ago, National could lose a seat or two, Labour and the Greens might pick one up. This would not affect the overall landscape. MMP in the form of Winston Peters would still decide who governs.
Max Hayton is a retired NZ journalist with parliamentary and international experience.