New Zealand sticks with the centre-right

As readers will presumably have heard by now, the New Zealand government of National Party prime minister John Key was re-elected yesterday to a third term. Provisional results give the National Party 48.1% of the vote (up 0.7% from 2011) and 61 of the 121 seats (up two), although with absentee votes yet to be counted it’s possible that will come down to 60.

Key had been the favorite all along, but National appeared to have been losing some ground during the campaign. That’s not how it turned out yesterday, though: the incumbents trounced their Labour opposition, which could manage only 24.7% and 32 seats, its worst result since the 1920s.

The result will give some comfort to centre-right parties throughout the democratic world, most of which have been having a fairly ordinary couple of years. While the Australian and New Zealand political systems don’t seem to run in parallel as much as they once did, it will be particularly encouraging for Victorian premier Denis Napthine, who faces a difficult fight for re-election in a little over two months time.

Key’s example shows that centre-right parties can embrace moderate leadership and succeed with it, a trick that has largely eluded the Australian Liberal Party. It is, however, something of a chicken-and-egg situation: electoral success is the only thing that can stave off a challenge from the hard right, but a period of unchallenged tenure is the best way to gain electoral success. Key may just have been the one who got lucky.

One reason New Zealand and Australia have started to look dissimilar, of course, is that 20 years ago the former embraced a new democratic electoral system, based on that used in Germany and known as mixed member proportional, or MMP. (Antony Green has a useful account of the change.)

You can see its democratic nature by observing that National, having roughly doubled Labour’s vote, will have roughly twice as many seats. In Australia, a party that doubled its opposition’s vote would win an enormous majority, as for example the LNP did in Queensland in 2012.

Another aspect of MMP is in evidence with the smaller parties. New Zealand’s Greens yesterday won 10.0% of the vote, only a little more than their Australian counterparts won last year. But in New Zealand that gave the Greens 13 seats (down one); in Australia, in a larger parliament, they won only one. New Zealand First, a rough equivalent of One Nation, also returned a slate of MPs: 11 seats (up three) for its 8.8%.

Only further down the table does the system seem less fair. There is a 5% threshold for party list representation, so the Conservative Party, with 4.1% of the vote, misses out. But three smaller parties are represented because they managed to win an electorate seat. Moreover (unlike in Germany), winning even one list electorate seat potentially entitles you to list seats as well, so one of those, the Maori Party, picked up a second seat although it had only 1.3% of the total vote.

If the election had been run on a pure PR system, with no electorate seats and no threshold, United Future would have disappeared but the Conservatives and Internet-MANA would both have won seats (five and two respectively), the extra six seats coming at the expense of the larger parties (three National, two Labour and one Green).

If the system had been modified along the lines recommended by the Electoral Commission (but rejected by the government), reducing the threshold to 4% and eliminating the list seats for parties below it, the Conservatives again would have entered parliament with five seats, two coming from National and one each from Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party. The National Party would not have won an absolute majority, but it would have had plenty of options for securing the extra two votes it would need, as it did in the last parliament.

One other feature worth noting is the contrast between New Zealand and Sweden, which voted last weekend. In Sweden, both major parties rejected the option of dealing with the extremist Sweden Democrats, and the centre-left looks like taking office despite the fact that the hard right nominally holds the balance of power.

But in New Zealand, despite Key’s moderate record, the major parties made it clear that they were willing to deal with New Zealand First had it emerged – as was widely predicted – with the balance of power. Both have done so in the past; National in 1996 and Labour in 2005.

That particular danger has been avoided this time, but expect it to be back on the agenda in three years time.

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