This is the third post on this topic where I first asked: Is NZ’s MMP system Mature? I decided this wasn’t a very fruitful line of enquiry and asked the more interesting question: What type of Democracy is NZ?

This was a little more informative – it seems that through the introduction of the MMP proportional voting system NZ’s democracy has been split between a Majoritarian system and a Consensual system, with some parts belonging to one category and some to another. In my mind this could be a large part of a disconnect within NZ’s political system  and perhaps part of the reason behind continuing discontent with MMP.

But I think rather than simply looking at the political system, it could also be interesting to look at broader NZ society and how it interfaces with it. In other words, does NZ’s political system fit its society?

A lot of things which I originally intended to mention here were actually picked up by Lijphart and are therefore in the previous post: Interest group mediation (Majoritarian); Lack of a written constitution/constitutional court (Majoritarian); Independent Central Bank (Consensual). Although I am not a sociologist (and would value a contribution from one here very much) I will take a rough stab at some other aspects of NZ society which I can think of and might tell us something about how it fits with the political system.

1. Political Socialization: With this I quite simply mean the way large groups of people in NZ grew up thinking about politics. For a lot of people still, this was under a Majoritarian, two-party, first-past-the-post situation which undoubtedly still shapes their thinking about politics.

2.Minority & Ethnic Groups: I would make the cautious assertion that here NZ society tends towards the Consensual. Basically, the more homogenous the society the better suited it is to a Majoritarian system. Interests do not diverge substantially from group to group and today’s minority can easily become tomorrow’s majority, leading to balanced public policy. I would cautiously say that NZ has, firstly, always had minority groups (eg Maori) represented in Parliament and well-organised out of Parliament. Secondly, I would add that NZ society has, especially through immigration, become more ethnically diverse over time. Both these points speak for NZ society fitting a Consensual democratic system better than a Majoritarian one.

For lack of other aspects which occur to me I will end the analysis here and confess that I do not see a clear pattern emerging. A lot of institutions in NZ are fitting with a Majoritarian democratic system. However, some are closer to a Consensual system.

As for society, my analysis above is too short and not detailed enough. However, with time the generations who grew up under the purely Majoritarian system will pass away. And with further immigration NZ society will become less homogenous and therefore less suited to a Majoritarian political system.

It seems that at the moment NZ society may be split, like its political system, between a more Majoritarian and a more Consensual system. As time goes on it may move to being better suited to the Consensual model.


I finished my previous post by stating that there is a disconnect between NZ society and the system through which it elects its parliament and I said the disconnect was that NZ society is pluralist and majoritarian, and the electoral system is consensual. This idea needs to be more fully developed.

As we all know, there are different types of democratic electoral systems all over the world. Prominent political scientist Arend Lijphart has looked at them and he sees two types of democracies: Majoritarian and Consensual.

Majoritarian Democracies are those like in Britain which are also called Westminster democracies. They are characterised by first-past-the-post voting, two-party dominance of parliament, powerful Prime Ministers/Cabinets, and unitary (not Federal) governance.

Consensual Democracies are like those in Germany and are characterised by proportional voting systems, multi-party coalition governments and federal governance.

So if there are these two types of democracy, which does New Zealand fit into? Lijphard actually addresses NZ in his book Patterns of Democracy and for him it was the best example of Majoritarian Democracy, until the introduction of MMP in 1996.

Since then the picture is a little clouded. Perhaps you might have thought NZ had swung all the way over to a Consensual Democracy, but that is not the case. Lijphard works on 2 Dimensions: Executive-Parties and Unitary-Federal.

1. Executive-Parties Dimension: Here NZ seems to be on the Consensual side. Since 1996 we have only had multiparty coalitions in government; we vote according to proportional voting rules; in the end, it is not easy for one party to take control of government.

The only place where we diverge is in interest group mediation, where NZ is more pluralist than corporatist, i.e. interest groups agitate on their own behalf for influence and do not reach compromises within their own institutions.

2. Federal-Unitary Dimension: On this one NZ would seem to be more on the Majoritarian side. We do not have independent federal states with wide-ranging competence and independently elected parliaments; we have no independent upper house of parliament; we have no written constitution and no constitutional court. In effect, once in power the government has great control of actual policy.

Here we diverge only in that we have an independent central bank.

So it looks like since the introduction of MMP New Zealand has gone from a majoritarian democracy to a bit of a mixture between majoritarian and consensual democracy.

Or, if we look at which aspects have changed from majoritarian to consensual we see that only those factors relating to the electoral system have changed: Which parties are represented in Parliament; How many parties are in Government; How people vote in elections. Everything else has remained the same, staunchly Majoritarian.

This seems to me to be part of the disconnect: Half the political system has been wrenched from Majoritarian to Consensual Democracy while the other half has continued on as before.

A ‘Mature’ MMP System

August 16, 2009

The MMP electoral system adopted by New Zealand in the 1990s is even now not without controversy. There is some speculation in New Zealand that voters are yet to come to terms with their new electoral system and that NZ therefore does not yet have a ‘mature’ MMP system. Often, rates of vote-splitting (between parties) and ‘strategic voting’ in NZ MMP elections are taken as positive indicators of voters becoming more familiar with the system, which itself would then be ‘maturing’ through this process (from memory I attribute such statements to Nigel Roberts, VUW).

Hence one could conclude that there are deep changes to come for New Zealand politics as the public adapts to the proportional representation system. I hope that some of the previous posts on the German electoral system (60 years MMP and counting) and the different factors influencing electoral success might have gone some way towards informing such a debate. Their main points were:

1. There are glaring differences between which parties are represented in the Bundestag and the NZ House of Representatives. Some (esp. the lack of a kingmaker party in NZ) are meaningful from a NZ perspective.

2. However, there are different factors influencing parties’ success: Electoral systems, Socio-economic structures and political culture.

The debate over whether NZ has a ‘mature’ MMP system, or is used to its new way of voting, is therefore of little importance. The electoral system in a country is only one factor influencing the country’s politics, and because of this the German example does not offer a set path which NZ is bound to follow (as we have seen in previous posts). Debating whether the MMP system is ‘mature’ or not does nothing to predict future political trends, and says very little about how well the electoral system articulates the preferences of the NZ population.

Far more important are the underlying social, economic and cultural trends which politics inevitably follows. Electoral systems will change as societies change; in Germany for example, they are currently debating whether they should do away with the five-percent-threshold to allow smaller parties into the Bundestag.

In particular, looking at whether voters split their votes between parties at MMP elections does nothing more that ask whether voters understand the electoral system within which they exercise their democratic right. It says little about voters’ actual interests and how they should be articulated in Parliament. This is where any real change would, and should, come from – rather than from spontaneous further electoral reform to skew party representation one way or the other.

A continuing discontent with MMP amongst voters and politicians, or what some commentators see as a lack of ‘maturity’ on the part of New Zealand voters, is not a lack of understanding the NZ electoral system, but a symptom of a more fundamental and long-lasting disconnect, concerned with the other, deeper factors influencing electoral success: Socio-economic structures and political culture.

It is the problem of trying to fit the ‘square peg’ of a pluralist, majoritarian society into the ’round hole’ of a consensus-democracy electoral system.

I return to the comparison of which parties are represented in the German and New Zealand houses of parliament and seek to draw some conclusions about what influences party representation in Parliament. Drawing on my previous posts, and bearing in mind that this is just a blog and not an academic paper, I put forward three possible factors influencing party success in elections:

1. Electoral System. A very important factor in a party’s success is the rules under which it is playing the political game. Just ask the Greens, who were never represented in the House before the introduction of MMP but have been ever since.

2. Socio-Economic Factors. According to a typical left-right spectrum, this should be the key influence on party formation and influence, with socio-economic groups organising themselves politically in order to represent their interests in parliament. Perhaps the deciding factor behind the lack of a powerful extreme left party in NZ.

3. Political Culture. This is a very difficult concept in political science: Trying to define political culture has been described as being like ‘nailing a pudding to a wall’. However it is a concept which has lasting influence and appeal. It used to be referred to as ‘socialisation’ – the way that people were initiated into the way politics is done in their society. Phenomena like distrust of  ‘Kingmaker’ parties in NZ, caused by negative previous experience with them, can only be put down to something like political culture.

And as for which factor is most important: As you can see from the brief examples above, they all seem to be important – in different ways and at different times.

In a recent contribution to his column ‘A View from Afar’, US-trained political scientist Paul Buchanan seeks to establish a framework for assessing the quality of New Zealand democracy.

True to the title of his column, Buchanan looks at the ‘big picture’ of politics in NZ and, ignoring party maneuvering or short-term scandals, casts it in a not-too-rosy glow. In his opinion, the quality of democracy in NZ is (for various reasons, see the full article) not bad, but declining.

For me, the most interesting part of the article is its third paragraph, where Buchanan seeks to claim the ground of democracy analysis in NZ as a political scientist. He laments the lack of deep insight on the topic, which has instead been left to ‘voting behavior specialists … Cultural relativists … constitutional law experts … In each case the focus is on the why and how of contemporary democratic practice in Aotearoa rather than the fundamentals of it.’

Good justification for deeper analysis of NZ politics from a big-picture, comparative perspective.

It might have struck some of you that the SPD (Labour equivalent) in Germany is in what looks like a terrible state: awful results in the EU elections, very low results in polls, etc.

And if we look across to Britain Labour is in similarly dire straits there: awful results in EU elections, new Tory mayor of London, unpopular leader, low results in polls, etc.

Back in NZ at the election last year, Labour took a drubbing from National; is no longer in Government; has an unpopular leader; and is polling badly.

Looking across these three examples of Social Democratic parties in the doldrums, there are any number of parallels that could be drawn: The departure of a popular and powerful leader (Schröder, Blair, Clark); Responsibility for the current financial crisis (all were in Government up to 2007); Lack of a clear direction or new policies; the list could go on.

An alarmist could even point to further countries in Europe which have recently taken a turn to the right, most notably France but perhaps also Italy or Poland, and declare the demise of Social Democracy. However, fun as it is to speculate on the future of a political ideology, I think this would be short-sighted and a little over the top.

Social Democratic parties have the longest traditions of any parties in Western democracies. They have, over long periods of time, shown a great resilience and capacity to reform and adapt to changing political circumstances. The last generation of  European Social Democratic leaders mentioned above are perhaps the best example of this but in recent memory in NZ we also had the Fourth Labour government.

In hindsight the greatest similarity, and ultimately weakness, across these Social Democratic parties will most likely be seen to be that they were all in Government for a decade (or in NZ’s case, near enough).

So now we know that NZ and Germany have a similar electoral system and which parties are represented in the German parliament compared to in NZ. What strikes us or is puzzling when we look at both parliaments from a comparative perspective?

1. There is no FDP-equivalent ‘Kingmaker Party’ in the New Zealand House of Representatives.

This is by far the most puzzling aspect of the NZ Parliament from a comparative perspective. As noted in a previous post, the FDP has successfully positioned itself as a centrist kingmaker party which has policies compatible with those of both major parties. As such, it has in the past formed coalitions with both SPD and CDU/CSU and been in government for longer than either of them, or any other party in the German Bundestag.

Why is there no such party in NZ? It looks, after all, to be a successful and appealing franchise. For answers, look to Winston Peters and NZ First. The first MMP election and its drawn-out coalition building phase had the public seeing a ‘Kingmaker’ as ‘holding the country to ransom’ or ‘the tail wagging the dog’, perhaps damning the concept of a centrist kingmaker party for some time.

2. New Zealand has no extreme Left Party.

The German Left Party can be seen as something of a historic relic; a leftover from Communist East Germany. However, it is now also represented in several West German state parliaments and therefore has a broader appeal than might otherwise be assumed.

But New Zealand politics have no equivalent, and there seems to be no call for an equivalent to the Left Party. To speculate on why: The lack of a strong organised labour movement; Lack of industry and therefore large concentrations of workers in single areas.

3. The NZ Maori Party.

Germany has no parties openly organised along racial lines; the only possible exception being those aligned with the neo-nazi movement. None of these is represented in the Bundestag, although unfortunately some are in state parliaments.

The Bundestag and some state parliaments (Landtage) do allow for special dispensation for minorities – they do not have to clear the five-percent-threshold but only win the proportion of votes equivalent to one seat. However, there are no seats reserved in the Bundestag or Landtagen for minorities.

4. NZ First/United Future/Progressive Parties.

The German electoral system has, like NZ’s, a five-percent-threshold which parties must clear to be represented in Parliament. However it does not have the direct mandate rule which gives parties their proportion of seats in the House if they directly win one electorate seat, even if this proportion is less than five percent.

This rules out parties such as those named above, whose popularity depend so much on one person, which do not clear the five percent threshold, and without a direct mandate in an electoral seat would not be represented in Parliament.

We have already seen which parties are represented in the Bundestag at the moment, but I will give a brief run-down of how many seats they have and the current state of things as background to the election on September 27.


At the moment we have the interesting situation that the two main parties, SPD and CDU are both in government in a Grand Coalition. Make no mistake: this was not their preferred option going into the last election, but it had to happen.

The situation between the main parties following the election was a stalemate. The SPD could have governed with the Greens and the Left Party, but has a no-coalition policy with the Left Party for a couple of reasons: Its history as the successor to the SED; Its extreme leftist policies; It is led by a prominent ex-SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine, who defected and is now widely unpopular in the party.

The CDU/CSU could not govern alone with the liberal FDP and declined to form a so-called ‘Jamaica Coalition’ with the Greens and the FDP (Party colour yellow).

So CDU/CSU and SPD formed a Grand Coaltion, under Chancellorship of Angela Merkel, which has functioned not too badly for the last four years – in that it has not fallen apart.

However this electoral term has seen the implosion of the junior coaltion partner, the SPD. Already wrought by fractional conflict during the Chancellorship of Gerhard Schroeder, the SPD pulled off an amazing feat pulling equal with the CDU/CSU at the election in 2005. However, Schroeder resigned from the Bundestag after not becoming Chancellor again after the election and since then we have seen 4 SPD Party Leaders in quick succession.

These changes in leadership are symptomatic of the problems that have plagued the party: Declining membership and support in core areas (such as North-Rhine Westphalia) and groups (such as the union movement); An ideological split and current lack of direction, to a certain extent caused by the Left Party; Lack of prominent and popular SPD Ministers in the government, and the contrasting popularity of Merkel. The list could go on.

The Party’s Chancellor candidate is now Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and it is polling very badly, as this graphic shows:

Bundestag Poll (Spiegel) 30.7.09

According to current polling, the CDU/CSU (black) could form a coalition government with the FDP (Yellow), their first-choice coalition partner. After a recent scandal the SPD had fallen to around twenty percent in polling, some seventeen percent behind CDU/CSU.

If John Key thinks that further NZ military involvement in Afghanistan would be part of an ‘overall exit strategy’ from the country then he surely must think again. Such a naive position can only be a result of either ignorance or wishful thinking.

Although Western leaders are loathe to admit it in public, because it invariably goes down badly with voters, the military presence there is going to go on for a long time yet – if it is to end successfully.

A very good indication of this came yesterday from someone who no longer has to fear public opinion on the conflict: the former German Defence Minister Peter Struck.

His opinion is that German troops will be needed there for ten more years: ‘It would be nice if it were less, but we cannot kid ourselves’.

The conflict is receiving hightened media coverage here due to the upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan, the elections to the German Bundestag end of September, and rising casualty rates.

German Political Parties

August 4, 2009

Having established the basic similarities between the NZ and German electoral systems, we now have to ask: How do they function day-to-day in each country? The best place to start here is with the parties – what they stand for and how they are represented in the Bundestag give us a good indication of how politics in Germany works under a proportional representation system.

CDU/CSU (NZ Equivalent: National): The Christian Democratic Union was formed after WWII with the goal of a ‘Christian Socialism’, which has now changed into that of a ‘Social Market Economy’ (we see that in this point the two main parties agree). However the CDU is more conservative than the SPD, and also more market-oriented. One should not underestimate the Christian element of the party (it is in the party’s constitution), although it is open also to non-Catholics. The CSU is the CDU’s sister party in the state of Bavaria, which cooperates with the CDU in the Bundestag.

SPD (NZ Equivalent: Labour): The German Social Democratic Party is the oldest party represented in the German parliament and committed to its own version of Democratic Socialism, which means: Freedom, Equity and Solidarity. In practice, this means what the Germans call the Social Market Economy, including a comprehensive welfare state and redistribution of wealth. The SPD historically has high membership and close ties to organised labour unions, although this is no longer necessarily the case.

The Free Democratic Party/FDP (NZ Equivalent: None): Often known as ‘The Liberals’, the FDP has successfully positioned itself in the middle of the political spectrum in Germany, and so has been in Government longer than any other German party – albeit as junior coalition partner. As a liberal party, the FDP is for the rights and responsibilities of the individual and free market economic policies.

Green Party/ Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (NZ Equivalent: Green Party): The Green Party is, quite obviously, a party with a focus on enviromental issues. Its core philosophy is that of sustainable development, however its policies spread into areas such as health, social policy (where they are leftist/liberal) and foreign policy (where they are more pacifist than other parties).

Left Party/Die Linke (NZ Equivalent: None): The so-called Left Party is the direct successor of the ruling party in the former socialist German Democratic Republic (East Germany), which after 1989 was renamed PDS and has gone on to merge with other leftist parties and contest elections in Germany on the state and federal level. As an extreme left party, it pursues ‘democratic socialism’ and that Capitalism be ‘overcome’.