New Zealand election: Citizens make the most of fair votes

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 27th September 2017

Saturday saw New Zealand go to the polls for its eighth election since they ditched the broken first past the post system and adopted Mixed-Member Proportional representation (MMP) in 1993.

Mixed-Member Proportional is a variant of the Additional Member System (AMS) used for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and London Assemblies.

Here’s how it works: 71 members of the parliament are elected by First Past the Post, with the remaining 49 elected from lists of candidates selected by the parties, with the lists ‘topping up’ the unrepresentative First Past the Post seats to achieve a parliament that matches how the country voted. If a party gets half the list vote, meaning it should win around 60 seats and it has 40 FPTP seats, the top 20 candidates on its list get elected.

New Zealand’s long-running centre-right led government is seeking a fourth term. While Prime Minister Bill English has been in power less than a year, his National Party has led the government since 2008. Before the election, English led a minority government with external support from three smaller parties.

This election was notable for ‘Jacindamania’: the New Zealand Labour Party had been slumping in the polls for years – before the election campaign it had been 11 years since Labour had even led in a single opinion poll.

Polls running up to the election seemed to indicate yet another drubbing was on the way. Polling in July had Labour languishing on 24% of the vote, 20 points behind the Nationals. But at the start of August, a mere seven weeks before the election, the former Labour leader resigned, forcing Labour – with no time for a real contest – to unanimously acclaim their 37 year-old deputy leader, Jacinda Ardern, as leader.

Jacinda proved popular – and a surprisingly competitive election ensued. By the beginning of September polls showed Labour ahead.

In the end, attacks on Labour’s tax policy saw the party fall back slightly in the polls and while it gained 11 points compared to its 2014 result it ultimately came 10 behind the Nationals. Yet the Nationals also do not have enough seats to govern with their prior coalition partners.

The balance of power therefore lies with centrist populist Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party, who have worked in government with both the Nationals and Labour before. It could either be that Bill English remains in office, or Jacinda Ardern could become New Zealand’s third female Prime Minister if she can convince New Zealand First and the Greens that the public would reward them for going into coalition together. Ultimately, the voters will punish an unpopular coalition at the next election.

This election shows just how positively competitive elections in countries with proportional representation can be. And whilst in the UK tiny swings in marginal seats decide the result, in New Zealand the way people vote across the board does.

Like in the EU referendum, every voter genuinely mattered, and what’s more they mattered where ever they lived – not just in a string of marginal seats. And you get a named MP for your local area in the constituency seats too.

Proportional representaion has been so successful in New Zealand that when a referendum was held on changing the voting system again in 2011, there was more support for the system than in 1993.

When voters get a taste of a democracy where every vote matters, they don’t give it up easily. Saturday’s election is the latest sign of that.

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