Our islands of stability
Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 13 July 2018
New Zealanders love to grumble about the state of politics.
We hold our politicians in roughly the same regard as real estate agents and used car salespeople. And even for stating it this way, I probably need to apologise to the latter two groups.
Yet when it comes to the ballot box, there is no sign of any severe dissatisfaction with our political system.
On the contrary, New Zealand appears to be one of the few Western-style democracies still showing any signs of political stability.
There were many remarkable outcomes of last year’s election. Several parties changed leaders during the campaign. Jacinda Ardern catapulted Labour from near-obscurity to a strong showing. And we got a true MMP government made up of three parties.
But behind such excitement, it is worth pointing out how ordinary the election result really was. And how such ‘normality’ stands out in today’s global politics.
In the 2017 election, New Zealand’s two largest parties, National and Labour, had a combined share of the vote of 81.3%. That was larger than in any previous election held under MMP – and even 11 percentage points higher than in the last election held under the first-past-the-post system, 1993 (see below).
Even more astonishingly, recent opinion polls show the two main parties are still building their share of the vote. According to Kiwiblog’s ‘poll of polls’ average, Labour and National now stand at just under 88% combined.
With results like this, New Zealand’s MMP system is moving toward a political landscape you would expect under first-past-the-post – or indeed what many representative democracies looked like in the past. No wonder, then, that even Gareth Morgan has now finally given up and deregistered his TOP party.
Most Western democracies started off with two-party models in the second half of the 20th century. A left- and a right-leaning party would face each other in elections, and every few years it would swing one way or the other.
Thus Britain, for example, had the Conservatives and Labour, in Italy it was the Democrazia Cristiana and the Communist Party, while in Austria Social Democrats and the Austrian People’s Party long formed a virtual duopoly.
Over recent decades, however, this neat political order has eroded practically everywhere. In some countries, entire parties have disappeared. Just look at what happened to Democrazia Cristiana or Greece’s once dominant socialist party, PASOK.
In other countries, new (and often populist) parties have formed to challenge the incumbents. The prime examples are Austria’s Freedom Party FPÖ and the Dutch Party for Freedom PVV.
In this context, it is instructive to look at Germany and compare it with New Zealand’s experience. Germany operates under the same MMP system that New Zealand has. In fact, New Zealand copied it from Germany. However, Germany’s experience of the past quarter century is different from ours.
The above table shows a dramatic erosion of democratic stability in German federal politics. In the early 1990s, their two main parties combined were stronger than Labour and National here. Yet today, the two main parties would not even command a parliamentary majority anymore should Germany go back to the polls.
Instead of two large parties, there are now a bunch of smaller parties competing with one another in Germany. Two of them, the Alternative für Deutschland and The Left, can be classified as populist.
There are many reasons for this decline of the old German political order, both personalities and policies. But it has now become a decline that feeds itself. When the two formerly large parties are constantly forced to work together because no other plausible coalition options exist, then this very cooperation feeds the populists. It allows them to accuse the previous mainstream parties of being indistinguishable, and they can blame them for every false compromise they must make.
I know this will not make me popular in New Zealand but how lucky are we by comparison? Admittedly, we have plenty of political stupidity in our system. Our parties do not always fill us with either inspiration or confidence.
Yet we are still looking at a situation in which battles for the best ideas are possible between a strong government and a strong opposition. And in which a proper change of government is also imaginable after the next election.
In a world in which politics has become unpredictable and often nasty, New Zealand’s party-political landscape appears civilised, steady and predictable.
For all our grumbling about the allegedly terrible state of New Zealand politics, that is something we should appreciate more.