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MMP for beginners

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 29 September 2017

When I am commenting on the New Zealand election, I have an unfair advantage. Having grown up in a country that has been practising MMP for almost seven decades, I am well versed in it.

For me, MMP is like riding a bike. You never forget how it works, even though I spent some time in the relative sanity of first-past-the-post democracies. Or, to use an even more appropriate image, MMP is like one’s mother tongue.

You see, even though I left the fatherland 13 years ago, I am still fluent in German (and I still speak English with a German accent).

In the same way, you can try to learn MMP later in your life but you will never be as fluent as you would have been had you grown up with it. And that is why most New Zealanders speak MMP with a cute first-past-the-post accent.

As an MMP native, I must say I find these first-past-the-post accents quite endearing. Kiwis talk as if it mattered who won Hutt South, Ohariu or Nelson. As if the party with the largest number of votes or electorate seats had a right to form the government. As if there were any moral prerequisites to forming a coalition.

For native MMPers, all such considerations are poppycock. We know there is only one question that matters at the end of the day: How can you scramble together enough seats for a parliamentary majority?

For FPP-minded Kiwis, this must sound brutal and amoral. And yes, it could have been straight out of a Machiavellian playbook: The end justifies the means.

And yet, that is how the game of politics is played in Germany under MMP. People vote for parties. Constituency seats are some sort of folklore. And the election winners are those parties that together command half the parliamentary seats plus one.

Let me give you a few examples of how politics plays out in the country that invented MMP.

The 1976 federal election saw the centre-right Christian Democrats on 48.6%, the Social Democrats on 43.7% and the Free Democrats on 7.9%. The result meant the Christian Democrats were five seats short of a majority (in a Bundestag of 518 MPs).

Yet who won the election? The Social Democrats/Free Democrats coalition under chancellor Helmut Schmidt. They had the numbers – easy as that. And they had clearly stated before the election that they considered themselves a bloc.

Or take Angela Merkel’s first Grand Coalition between her Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in 2005. In that election campaign, Ms Merkel campaigned for a GST increase by two percentage points. The Social Democrats campaigned against any increase, claiming it was a regressive tax.

In the end, both parties agreed to a Grand Coalition, which was made possible by political arithmetic.

And GST? Well, it went up not by one or two points but by three! Such is the miracle of coalition talks after an election that you can make policy irrespective of what you campaigned on. You can always blame circumstances for any outcome.

Or take the most recent German election last Sunday. The Bundestag is now fractured, with seven parties organised in six parliamentary factions. And the most likely outcome is a Christian Democrat, Greens and Free Democrat coalition.

In New Zealand terms, this would be the equivalent of Bill English, James Shaw and David Seymour working together. In Germany, nobody thinks this would be outrageous.

There, no coalition is unthinkable. The maxim is that all democratic parties ought to be able to enter into coalitions with each other. And they do.

Thus, at state level, you have Green/Christian Democrat, Christian Democrat/Green, Social Democrat/Green, Socialist/Social Democrat, Christian Democrat/Social Democrat/Green and Christian Democrat/Free Democrat/Green and Christian Democrat/Free Democrat coalitions.

In other words, anything goes.

Or, with a bit of poetic licence, after acrimonious election campaigns parties are often mesmerised to find out how much they may still have in common.

In contrast, New Zealand has not quite understood yet how this MMP game really works.

Here we pretend the Greens can only work with Labour, that National can only work with ACT, United Future and Maori, and that NZ First will typically be the kingmaker.

If New Zealanders had a bit more experience with MMP, we would interpret last week’s election result differently. We would appreciate the possibility of a Grand Coalition. We would be surprised as to why James Shaw has not called Bill English yet. We would not understand why Winston would need to be part of the next government.

And we would expect the largest party to have the most and the best options of forging a coalition.

Forming a new government is all about the numbers under MMP. Forget parties’ manifestos or histories. They are only bargaining chips in subsequent negotiations.

If New Zealand wants to run under MMP, get used to its machinations. And if that is too Machiavellian for your taste, return to first-past-the-post.

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