The Nation waits, with bated breath for a phone call

Venkat Raman

The agony of waiting could end sometime on Monday (October 16, 2017) when New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters makes that nervously awaited phone call.

That phone call would end public speculation on who would form the next government, in what form and shape how Mr Peters and his Party would fit into the new jigsaw puzzle.

The call would also end the anguish of Leaders Bill English (National), Jacinda Ardern (Labour), James Shaw (Green) and everyone affected by a government on limbo and an empty Parliament.

People remain calm

Surprisingly, the anxiety that we have seen among the leaders is absent among ordinary New Zealanders, for it was their voting pattern on September 23 and the special votes that were counted a fortnight later that brought the position of the two major parties to the current state that is sans majority. The people also defeated Mr Peters in his own constituency but gave his Party nine votes to decide the fate of the next government.

It was again New Zealanders, who said in a 2011 Referendum that they would prefer the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system to remain, although many would now like change to another, more robust, less time consuming and less complex system of voting.

However, it would be sometime before the next public mandate is sought.

The only consolation is that such delays in the formation of a new government on the face of a lack of majority is not new.

The European Experience

Germans, from whom we adopted the MMP system, held their general election on September 24, 2017, returned a highly divided decision. The Christian Democratic Union of Germany and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria accounted for 41.5% of the votes pooled, forcing incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel to negotiate with more than one party to form the next government.

MMP has been in practice in Germany for more than 50 years and Germans say that they are just beginning to understand its vagaries.

In Belgium, after a highly fragmented election results in 2010, the government remained in its caretaker mode as leaders of political parties took 589 days to form a new government.

The Majority Concept

In the case of New Zealand, National Party enthusiasts, including Mr English, have argued that their Party has the ‘moral right’ to form the next government, since they have 56 seats in the final count (reduced from 58 seats). The Opposition have refused that argument, saying that with just 44.4% of the votes, people have actually voted for a change.

With the winner not able to take them all, National does not have a legal claim.

Permutations and combinations

Numbness in politics is a dangerous thing. It produces several idle workshops, some with concepts that may appear ideal in theory but outrageously difficult in practice.

“Keep all these opportunists out and let National and Labour form a ‘Grand Coalition’ and keep each other under check but rule the next three years at the end of which the people can make their mind and allow one of them to take over for the following three years. We have enough of tail wagging the dog,” they said.

Mr Peters, who wants to ban foreign investment and give politicians free rein to meddle at the Reserve Bank, has kept his promise not to rush into premature decisions. There is good reason to think that he will eventually walk up the aisle with Mr English, even though his campaign slogan this year was “Had enough?”

Mr Peters has also feuded with bigwigs in National such as Finance Minister Steven Joyce.

He might expect to hold greater sway over Ms Ardern, who needs him more than over Mr English.

As political analyst Matthew Hooton said, his two previous tie-ups with incumbents were followed by heavy losses for New Zealand First.

“Therefore, it may be in his interest to side with someone new.”

A similar logic might prompt Mr Peters, who is 72, and has already served as Deputy Prime Minister, to refuse to join any coalition.

It is now just a matter of a day or two.


Photo Caption:

The Man in the Middle decides as James Shaw, Jacinda Ardern and Bill English wait.

(Picture by Newshub)

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