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Oceania

Sep 24, 2017

Who needs thresholds, anyway?

New Zealand copied its democratic electoral system from Germany, but also copied its least democratic and now pointless feature.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

There have been no surprises in New Zealand since my earlier report. As I suggested, late counting delivered an extra seat to Labour, giving them 45 to the National Party’s 58. Two other parties, Winston Peters’s New Zealand First and the Greens, cleared the 5% threshold, winning nine and seven seats respectively, and the free-market ACT held its single electorate seat.

Postal votes are yet to be counted, but they are unlikely to change the picture. The Māori Party was eliminated from parliament, losing both its electorate seats to Labour. United Future also disappeared, with the retirement of its sole MP.

National’s 46.0% of the vote is a drop of just 1.0% from 2014, which is pretty good for a third term government. Labour’s increase was much more dramatic, improving by 10.7% to 35.8%, but most of it came at the expense of minor parties – particularly the Greens, whose 5.9% was down 4.8% from last time.

Peters now has a theoretical discretion as to whether he delivers a majority to National or to the Labour/Greens combination, and he is revelling in his status as kingmaker. (He’s that sort of person.) But as I pointed out before, it would be politically impossible for him not to back National, given that they lead Labour by more than ten percentage points.

Long-time readers will be aware that I rather like the New Zealand electoral system, but it has two notable drawbacks: the rather high threshold for representation, and the capricious exemption from it for winning even a single electorate seat. (Germany shares the first but not the second.)

Neither feature, however, really mattered yesterday. Only ACT won an electorate seat from below 5%, and its party vote was so low (0.5%) that it was never going to bring in any list MPs. The largest unrepresented party is the centrist newcomer TOP (“The Opportunities Party”) with 2.2%. If there had been no threshold, TOP would have won three seats and the Māori Party one, with the seats coming two each from Labour and National.

That wouldn’t really change anything, although it would make the already difficult task of forming a Labour government just a bit more difficult. But in other circumstances, the threshold can wreak havoc. In 2014 the Conservative Party came fifth in terms of votes, but with 4.0% it won no seats; three parties with fewer votes – Māori, ACT and United Future – were all represented.

This year the surge in Labour’s support carried the danger that, because so much of it was coming from the Greens, it might have pushed them below the threshold. It’s impossible to say, but some of the faltering in Labour’s momentum in the last week could possibly have been due to an awareness that it would do more harm than good if it resulted in its ally dropping out of parliament.

Germany can provide equally striking examples. In the 2013 election, the three parties of the left won a majority of seats, despite the fact that their aggregate vote had gone down, simply because two right-of-centre parties (the FDP and AfD) just fell short of the 5% mark.

The desire to avoid a proliferation of tiny parties in parliament is understandable, but it’s not worth the arbitrary nature of the current setup. A 3% threshold, as in Greece, would be much less likely to distort the outcome.

In Germany, of course, it was not just small parties in the abstract that were the problem; the threshold was designed specifically to prevent representation of the far right. The NPD fell short with 3.6% at its peak in 1969, and AfD managed 4.7% in 2013. But with AfD now polling well clear of 5%, that purpose has become an irrelevance.

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