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.

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’.

Perhaps it is the language barrier, but I have never seen much analysis of the relationship between the German and New Zealand electoral systems, or of its consequences. But as I learned back in POLS101, the new electoral system which New Zealand adopted in 1996 (MMP) was the same system used to elect the lower house of the German Parliament, the Bundestag (and most German state parliaments). With elections to the Bundestag coming up later this year it is a good time to look at both countries from a comparative perspective.

This system is characterised by one main purpose: creating consensus across political parties and reducing the chance of one party gaining an absolute majority. The main mechanism to this end is the proportional allocation of seats in the house according to total votes cast, allowing a wider variety of political parties to be represented and a large chance of coalitions having to be formed.

It is worth noting that this system was developed after WWII and sought to prevent the sort of situation which allowed Hitler’s NSDAP (Nazi party) to gain control of the Reichstag, outlaw opposition parties and create a one-party dictatorship, with disastrous consequences. (Not all of this was done lawfully or facilitated by the constitution; however it was not prevented by it either.)

How interesting that New Zealanders would be so disillusioned with their electoral system that they would adopt another that was developed as a direct consequence of one of history’s most appalling and disastrous perversions of democracy.

New Zealand’s reasons for adopting a proportional representation system were of a much, much lower order of injustice and can be summarised as frustration at:

1. Distortion of election results: The old First-Past-The-Post (FPP) system on occasion – but, perhaps fatefully, twice in a row in 1978 and 1981 – rewarded more seats in the House to the Party which had won less votes.

2. Underrepresentation of Minorities: FPP consistently returned only the two largest parties, Labour and National, to the House.

3. The ‘Absolute Power’ of Cabinet: With a party majority in the House and control of Cabinet a small group of people could in effect control all legislation passed by Parliament. This was perceived to be the situation especially between 1984 and 1993 when wide-ranging reforms were made by Government which sections of the public felt were not mandated.