As expected, John Key’s National Party was relatively untroubled in Saturday’s New Zealand election. On final figures for the night — so with postal and absentees (called “special votes”) still to come — it will finish on 60 seats; two one-seat allies, ACT and United Future, give it 62 out of 121. If the Maori Party signs up again its three seats would take the government’s total to 65, a nine-seat majority.

For those who are used to single-member districts that doesn’t sound like much, but under proportional representation and against a grab-bag of opponents it’s pretty good. It’s easily the best result for one party since the introduction of mixed-member proportional voting (MMP) in 1996.

Not quite as good, mind you, as the opinion polls had been saying; most of them put National’s vote above 50%, but it finished with only 48%.

Gary Morgan’s was the closest (49.5%) and also picked the late surge for Winston Peters’s New Zealand First, but it got the balance between Greens and Labour badly wrong.

The main reason Key’s tally is lower than expected was the strong performance of NZ First, which gained a swing of 2.7% to return to parliament with eight seats (and very close to a ninth), thus reducing the number of wasted votes. But although that’s mathematically bad for National, it’s probably strategically good: Peters can’t play off one party against the other (Key doesn’t need him, and has consistently said he wouldn’t deal with him anyway), he can just complicate Labour’s message and impair the effectiveness of the opposition.

It was also a good election for the Greens, with 10.6% and 13 seats, consolidating their position as the third party. They generally do well on special votes so they could easily pick up a 14th seat, at the expense of either Labour or National. Labour’s 27.1%, on the other hand, is its worst result since 1928. It’s probably not a coincidence that turnout was also well down, continuing a long-term trend.

ACT and United Future are nowhere near the 5% threshold for representation; they survive only because tactical voting by National supporters delivers them an electorate seat, and even then they don’t have enough support to bring in any list members as well. (United Future was already in this position in 2008 — now ACT has joined it.) Without that tactical voting, National and NZ First would each have won an extra list seat, so National would have had an absolute majority of 61 out of 121.

Whether a one-seat majority on your own is better or worse than a three-seat majority with two reasonably tame allies is I guess a matter of opinion. But in either case the fact that a party with 48% of the vote is very close to a majority of seats is just what democracy should look like. Compare last year in Australia, where Labor and the Coalition each won 48% of the seats with respectively 38% and 43% of the vote — and that’s the closest we’ve been to a proportional result for a long time.

Importantly, even though National hasn’t reached the magic 61 this time, it’s been shown that it’s quite possible. The reason single parties usually don’t win majorities is not some malign conspiracy of the system, it’s because the majority of people don’t vote for them.

Nor is National’s victory hard to explain. Like Australians, New Zealanders are indulgent towards first-term governments; Key is personally popular and has governed in studiously moderate fashion. For his second term he has promised some limited privatisations, but clearly not enough to frighten the electorate.

Befitting its character as a European outpost, New Zealand is showing the same political pattern as most of the EU: centre-right parties are choosing cautious, middle-of-the-road leaders and the voters are rewarding them with a string of victories, whether despite or because of difficult economic times. Australia and the US, on the other hand, have thrown up hard-right ideologues that the electorate is having trouble warming to.

Referendum votes cast on Saturday will be counted this week, so for now we only have the pre-polls, but on those there’s not much doubt the electorate has rejected the move to abolish MMP — 53.7% voting to retain it against 42.6% for change. Good for them.

Peter Fray

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