Populist holds trump card in NZ coalition talks

By on 02/10/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister, New Zealand

New Zealanders are set to wait at least two weeks to find out who will form their next government, after Saturday’s general election delivered a hung parliament.

Populist Winston Peters emerged as kingmaker after neither National nor Labour, the two largest parties, won an outright majority in the tightly-fought poll. The maverick leader of the New Zealand First Party has refused to make any decisions on coalition partners until the election’s final tally, which includes ‘special votes’, has been issued on Saturday 7 October.

Special votes account for some 15% of the total, and include those cast by people outside their home constituency and those living abroad.

Outcome in the balance

The election, which followed a series of resignations by party leaders, was lively and unpredictable. Opinion polls swung wildly after 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern, who was a senior policy adviser in former UK premier Tony Blair’s government, took over as Labour leader in August and launched a bid to become New Zealand’s third woman prime minister.

Despite media excitement over Ardern’s charisma, youth and radical policies, the centre-right National Party led by Prime Minister Bill English netted 58 seats and Labour took 45 in the initial results, while New Zealand First gained nine and the Green Party seven.

However, Ardern refused to concede defeat until after 7 October and formed an alliance with the Green Party. Together Labour and the Greens have 52 seats, just enough to reach the minimum of 61 needed to form a government if they form a pact with New Zealand First.

While the special votes can’t undo the National Party’s substantial lead, they tend to benefit left-wing parties, with National losing one seat to the Greens in the 2014 election. So they could add one or two seats to the Labour-Green coalition, which might make New Zealand First more willing to join forces with it.

Power dynamics

Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First Party (Image courtesy: Airflow NZ).

Both Ardern and English have said they are ready to enter into talks with Peters. After the election, English accepted the resignation of his most trusted adviser Wayne Eagleson, who has been chief-of-staff to National Party governments for nine years. Eagleson, who pledged to stay on until coalition talks are completed, is expected to play a key part in brokering a deal.

Peters, 72, who has served in both National and Labour governments during his 39 years in parliament, is acting as kingmaker for the third time. A rugby-loving lawyer of Maori and Scottish descent, he supports tight immigration controls and low taxes. Some pundits have likened him to Donald Trump.

After the election results, Peters was tight-lipped about which party he preferred, saying only that he was discussing options with members of his own party first, Reuters reported. “I’m doing it one-by-one by phone,” he said.

Most analysts put the National Party as the favourite for a coalition due to their larger majority, previous links with Peters, policy overlaps, and the greater simplicity of a two-party alliance.

But the suspense could continue until Thursday 12 October, the date that Peters gave to reporters when boarding a ferry to go home on Saturday, as his deadline for reaching a decision, according to the New York Times.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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