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.

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.

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.