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Accidental success is not a strategy

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 2 March 2018

The excitement around the new Labour-NZ First-Green Government and National’s leadership change makes it easy to forget there is a fifth party in Parliament, too. But at last we learnt earlier this week how ACT wants to revive its fortunes.

The Fairfax press reported that ACT’s leader (well, sole MP) David Seymour had just travelled to Germany for some post-election inspiration. What Seymour discovered in Berlin was the story of the German Free Democrat Party (FDP).

In last year’s election, the FDP returned from extra-parliamentary obscurity to the Bundestag on a respectable share of 10.7 percent.

No wonder this result attracted Seymour’s attention. His own ACT party managed a meagre 0.5 percent of the vote.

So, if the goal is to increase ACT’s electoral performance twentyfold, then Germany’s FDP looks like a good role model. Unfortunately, any potential parallels between the FDP and ACT end right here.

Now don’t get me wrong. The world should never stop listening to Germans for advice. Every now and then it may even make sense (I am speaking from experience).

But ACT and the FDP have little in common besides both being more or less free-market. Structurally and historically, they are different parties.

For a long time in post-War history, the FDP enjoyed its kingmaker status between the centre-right and the centre-left. This gave it power, gravitas and plenty of positions to fill. The FDP was part of the German establishment in a way that ACT has never been.

But the FDP’s constant kingmaker position has also contributed to ideological flip-flopping. Yes, it was notionally free-market. But that never meant it would not fight hard to protect its own clientele.

Incidentally, that was one reason why it got kicked out of the Bundestag in 2013.

That the FDP recovered from this near-death experience had a simple reason. As voters on the centre-right became dissatisfied with Chancellor Angela Merkel and her coalition, they sought alternatives to Merkel’s Christian Democrats. They found them in the FDP – and in the populist Alternative für Deutschland, which even finished slightly ahead of the FDP.

So what is there for ACT to learn?

To be frank, not much. Unless, of course, sheer frustration with Labour and National drives desperate voters to Seymour.

But that probably does not pass as a political strategy – even though it did wonders for the FDP.

If David Seymour follows his own instincts, his party would easily be more appealing than a party relying on protest votes.

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