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.


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