MMP for beginners

Oliver Hartwich writes:

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. …

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.

This is not a virtue of MMP!

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.

The Germans are much more mature in their approach. Our immaturity means Winston gets to decide.

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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