Who Will Stop MMP Reform?

November 5, 2009

To continue the analysis I started in my previous post on the apparent unpopularity of MMP in NZ and its possible demise I ask: Who will try and stop a move back to First-Past-the-Post electoral procedures? Let’s take a purely utilitarian approach to this question.

In Parliament, the opposition must surely be opposed to a government which seems to seek to change the electoral ‘rules of the game’ to its advantage. And I believe the Labour party will oppose a move away from MMP, ostensibly for the reason I mentioned previously: Labour has traditionally had more allies with which to form coalitions under MMP, and can thus consider the current system to be to its advantage.

Because the matter will be decided by a public referendum, one could assume that Labour supporters and supporters of all small parties would vote against a move away from MMP and as a bloc form a majority. National did not win a clear majority in the last election after all.

However as the last post showed, not only National supporters are advocating a change back to First-Past-The-Post. Why? And without a Labour-Small Party bloc who will support MMP?

I suggest that National’s success in wooing the Maori Party and United Future has changed some Labour supporters’ view of the ‘rules of the game’ of MMP in that they no longer see themselves as a priviliged player under MMP compared to National. If National can also form coalitions with three or more smaller parties, what are the benefits to Labour from MMP (over and above those for National, it goes without saying)?

There are none. Labour supporters are therefore put in a position the same as National supporters were up to now: they have no reason to support proportional representation when they could govern alone under First-Past-the-Post (except ideational reasons which I may look at later). By this reasoning, if voters vote according to their parties’ interests at the referenda only small party supporters will support PR and MMP should be shown the door.

How to explain politicians’ continued support of MMP? They are hedging their bets, maintaining their popularity in the eyes of smaller parties, who they will have to work with until 2014 at least, and perhaps beyond if the referenda fail.


Three weeks after the Bundestag election in Germany and the discussions between CDU, CSU and FDP continue. It is still not clear what the exact policy directions of the new coalition government will be, or who will occupy which ministerial/government posts.

I see an interesting difference in the coalition bargaining between the parties and what has gone on in NZ after MMP elections since 1996.

The German parties are driving hard bargains. Both the CSU and FDP are sticking to their guns and placing demands on Merkel’s CDU that they make concessions so the smaller parties honour their pre-election commitments. There have been several examples of this as the discussions have gone on, for the FDP most notably in measures protecting personal privacy.

But as predicted, the big one sticking point is tax cuts: both smaller parties want them, the CDU knows they can’t really afford them. Merkel doesn’t want to be seen as fiscally irresponsible and run large deficits just to finance tax cuts (and the CSU will not allow this anyway). The result is a sort of Mexican stand-off. This has been going on for weeks. It has finally been decided that there will be tax cuts, the question is how big they will be.

The important point here compared to NZ is that the coalition bargaining is very detailed, and very contested. I am not an expert on NZ’s coalition agreements, but NZ moved away from both these aspects after the first experience with coalition government in 1996.

Then, Winston Peters and NZ First undertook to draw up a coalition agreement which set out most important policy directions in writing. Peters drove such a hard bargain that he was seen to be holding the country to ransom, and the discussions took so long that the country was without an effective government for two months. NZ First ended up going with National, which was the opposite of what they had alluded to pre-election. The coalition didn’t last very long, and neither did NZ First’s (or MMP’s) popularity.

Since this negative experience with detailed, drawn-out coalition bargains NZ has moved to a more flexible approach based on agreements on confidence and supply (settling other issues on a more ad-hoc basis), which would seem to be more in keeping with the country’s Westminster/common law tradition. Helen Clark’s Labour did this with the Greens in 1999/2002 and with NZ First/United Future in 2005. John Key has a similar confidence and supply agreement with ACT, United Future & Maori Party.

The Germans, however, seem happy to persist with longer, more contested coalition bargaining phases in which major policy issues are hashed out in detail after the election. This is more in line with the German tradition of constitutional consensual government, and the German civil law.

Remember back to before NZ’s November General Election and the scrutiny of National’s leader and future Prime Minister John Key? He was labeled as ‘Labour-lite’ and centrist; his party was careful not to wage war on some of Helen Clark’s more popular policies; the differences between the two main parties were small, negligible even.

And for those who follow US politics – you must have been struck by the partisan divide in both society and politics between the Democrats and Republicans. It is, in the words of a columnist, ‘The 50/50 Nation‘. Heck, the two camps even have their own separate news channels!

Over in Germany, people ask themselves: What is the SPD doing in opposition? (oops, sorry, the election isn’t for 2 weeks. I meant, Grand Coalition.) They could form a government with the Greens and the Left Party tomorrow!

Discussion of all these issues, and some others which I have speculated upon here previously, can be informed by a powerful, but simple, political science model (originating in economics) called the Median Voter Theorem.

Briefly, the theorem is a model of majority decision making which states that the median voter’s preferred policy will beat any alternative in a vote; in a stronger form it also says that the median voter will almost always get his/her most preferred policy. The rationale behind it is too much for this blog and is explained briefly and clearly here, but the consequences are far-reaching.

Median_voter_modelIf we apply the model to the Left-Right spectrum above, we can come to the following conclusions:

1) if voters cast their vote for the candidate closest to their ideal policy, then the candidate who stands nearest to the median voter will win. In this case, this would be candidate A, who is closest to point M.

2) if the candidates are free to choose their policies, they will choose positions which will place them closest to the median voter’s at M; so candidates A and B will move in the directions of the arrows towards the middle of the graph and the median voter’s preferences will be fulfilled.

The theory puts the median voter in the lucky position of always getting what they want, but it also has other consequences – many more than will be expanded on here, but to go back to the examples above:

Key vs. Clark in NZ: parties will choose policies which are moderate and middle of the road; no wonder that they look so similar.

Democrats vs. Republicans in the US: if parties continue to act as above for many years they could create blocs, each accounting for approximately half of the population (see the column from Mickey Kraus).

The SPD and the Left Party in Germany: parties will be very careful not to take extreme positions which could alienate voters closer to the median.

So there you have it. A brief but hopefully not-too-incomplete rundown of the Median Voter Theorem in five minutes. A simple, powerful analytical tool for analyzing party politics.

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.

Yesterday the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband gave a speech to NATO members outlining a comprehensive British policy for further military involvement in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t forget that the main ISAF force in Afghanistan is supplied by NATO, alongside the US Operation Enduring Freedom. Back in 2001 NATO member states saw the September 11 terrorist attacks as an attack on a member state and invoked Article 5 of the NATO treaty, compelling all member states to react. The result was the ongoing military involvement in Afghanistan.

In the speech, Miliband gave a broad outlook on British involvement in Afghanistan, setting both a clear goal:

‘to protect our citizens from terrorist attacks by preventing Al Qaida having a safe haven in the tribal belt – in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.’

And conceding that military measures alone will not be able to fulfil this goal, but real progress will be made through political measures:

‘strategic progress relies on undermining the insurgency through politics’

Thus Miliband sees three main political challenges which must be met by Western forces in Afghanistan:

‘First, a political strategy for dealing with the insurgency through reintegration and reconciliation…

Second, a political strategy for the wider population, through reassurance about their future…

Third, a political strategy towards the neighbours in the region – including Pakistan and Iran – to ensure that they accept that Afghanistan’s future is not as a client of any, but as a secure country in its own right.’

The British must be congratulated for communicating a comprehensive strategy towards military involvement in Afghanistan – for setting clear goals and a path forward towards achieving them.

And it is worth noting that this strategy follows the broad lines which have been recommended by many in the wider policy community, and you read about here at Comparablog.

The New Zealand government would do well to learn from the clear policy statement of the British and formulate a comprehensive strategy of their own on military involvement in Afghanistan.

It was inevitable that the election of a National-led government in New Zealand would provoke debate on privatisation of state-owned assets. John Key’s pre-election assurances that National planned no privatisation in its first term in government were almost provocative in their allusion to a change in policy after that.

Colin Espiner is right to describe privatisation of state assets as a key ideological divide in New Zealand politics (Stuff, July 24). This issue is a lightning rod for heated debate from both the left and the right.

It is, however, not a new debate. The heyday of the issue was the 1970s and 1980s, when perceived poor economic performance led many countries to question their economic institutions and structures. Thus Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher championed a vision of small government and aimed to radically reduce the role of the state in their respective economies. New Zealand had its own shake-up from 1984 to the early 1990s under finance ministers Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.

Then, as now, the real debate was not around whether a certain government would sell off an electricity company, or contract out state services to private firms. The real debate was, or should have been, around what form of capitalism is best for a country.

Piecemeal and partisan discussion of specific policies is, in this context, irrelevant and unproductive. Even worse, for a country to attempt to switch from one form of capitalism to another from one decade to the next is simply a waste of scarce resources. Most countries have reached a broad (but not static – drastic change is still possible e.g. Regan or Thatcher) consensus as to which form of capitalism, paired with which brand of democracy, they are most suited.

Western countries in a post-Soviet (i.e. excluding democratic socialism) world can generally be distinguished between along two main lines:

Economic: Private Enterprise Economies vs. Mixed Economies

Political: Pluralist Democracies vs. Corporatist Democracies

A Civilian Surge?

July 23, 2009

A recent publication by Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations entitled Shaping Europe’s Afghan Surge is a very readable account of recent developments in Afghanistan, and is especially informative on recent developments in troop numbers.

Korski points to a lack of a coherent European strategy for Afghanistan – a similar situation to New Zealand’s – and therefore¬† suboptimal performance in placating and stabilising the country. He goes on to make numerous policy recommendations which are not necessarily relevant to New Zealand, however some of his broad points are.

One is that there has already been a large increase in troop numbers in Afghanistan – and this is not even including the additional 20,000 promised recently by the United States. Troops from European Union countries increased by almost 10,000 between November 2006 and March 2009. Even the German army, normally hamstrung by popular opposition to overseas troop deployments, concedes that it has no lack of fighting men on the ground.

Therefore Korski recommends following this military surge with an equivalent surge of civilian experts such as police, military advisors, and observers for upcoming democratic elections. This civilian surge should serve to add a new nonmilitary dimension to the conflict (which Korski sees as a stalemate which cannot be won militarily), complement the ongoing military surge and lay the foundations for enduring political progress.

These recommendations are broadly echoed by Christia and Semple in a recent article in Foreign Affairs.

Debate in New Zealand around a new overall strategy for engagement in Afghanistan should take these contributions into account and ask where New Zealand’s scarce resources are best spent.

Afghanistan in Context

July 22, 2009

John Key’s National Government looks likely to send New Zealand SAS troops back to Afghanistan; a decision which Key has not taken lightly and which has not been without public controversy. Rightly so. It is, after all, the new government’s first major decision on an overseas military deployment and therefore a chance for the Prime Minister to prove his foreign policy credentials.

Key’s initial preference for a New Zealand military role in Afghanistan was one as part of¬† ‘an overall exit strategy’ (Herald, April 20). This stance has since been watered down to a general hope that Afghanistan be ‘stablised’, allowing for Western troops to leave the country (Herald, July 20).

The lack of clear objectives or time frame for New Zealand military involvement in Afghanistan (this applies not just to SAS missions but to the PRT in Bamiyan), plus the Prime Minister’s both vague and shifting positions on the issue, indicate no coherent overall strategy on the political level for the New Zealand Defence Force in the country. Indeed, it seems that any decisions on such a strategy are to be delayed until after a review of the Defence Force is completed in August.

At this point then, it could be of much use to consider European nations’ current predicament in Afghanistan.

They too are facing heated public debate on the conflict: Casualty numbers are growing; in Britain the opposition alleges troops are underequipped for the fighting; in Germany the first new military medals for bravery since WWII have been awarded to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

They too are under pressure from the United States to provide additional military assistance: President Obama sees Afghanistan as a ‘litmus test’ of European reliability in military matters.

Now is a crucial, paradigm-shifting point in the conflict, offering Europe the chance to redefine its strategy in Afghanistan. It makes sense, therefore, for New Zealand to take note of how Europe approaches this process and take its lessons into account when formulating its own policy on engagement in the conflict.