New Zealand’s major political parties are scrambling to woo the support of the smaller New Zealand First party to form a government after Saturday’s stalemate election.
Neither the incumbent National party, led by a revitalised Bill English, nor the opposition Labour party, led by Jacinda Ardern, are in a position to take office, with 15% of the vote still to be counted.
The ruling National party won 58 seats and Labour 45 – both short of the 61 needed to form a government in the 120-seat parliament.
New Zealand First’s Winston Peters, an unpredictable populist, has been left as the kingmaker after winning nine seats.
Coalition negotiations are expected to take weeks, possibly months, as all parties wait for the more than 300,000 special votes to be counted by 7 October. Special votes are made up of overseas voters and voters who enrolled and voted on the same day.
Turnout on Saturday of 78.8% was lower than expected, but slightly up from 77.9% in 2014.
Voter numbers were a disappointing for Labour who were relying on young voters to push them into government.
However Maori voters showed a huge level of support for Labour, electing seven Labour politicians for the seven Maori-reserved seats in parliament. The minor Maori Party lost all its seats and a number of its members announced their retirement.
The Labour leader said the vote of confidence from Maori – who make up about 15% of the New Zealand population – meant Labour had a “real responsibility” to improve the lives of New Zealand’s indigenous people, who are over-represented in poor socio-economic outcomes, high unemployment rates and high suicide rates.
“It is now incumbent on us to ensure we are doing everything we can to deliver for Maori,” said Ardern.
“Regardless of what position we’re in, we’ll be advocating to lift Maori home ownership, lift outcomes for Maori health, and lift job opportunities and hope for our rangatahi [younger generation]” she said.
Ardern reported that Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten called her on Sunday night and to talk about the election and the path ahead for New Zealand Labour.
Prime Minister English said a timeframe of “two-to-three weeks” was reasonable for coalition negotiations to take place between his party and NZ First.
English described Peters as a “maverick”, but said his positions on certain issues were well-known and could be reflected in a National-NZ First coalition government.
“People want to continue with the economic direction and they voted for progress,” English told Radio New Zealand.
“We have yet to secure a mandate to govern … but I think there is a clear indication from voters of continuing the direction National campaigned on.”
English added he had known Peters “a long time” and National would not rule “anything out” before talking privately with Peters.
“He understands his role; he’s very experienced. Some of his long-held positions I think he would expect to be reflected in government policy.”
Over the past nine years of National government Winston Peters has repeatedly opined on his many “bottom-lines” if he were to form a coalition government with a major party at the next election.
These may include: plans to slash migration to 10,000 a year, a drop of more than 60,000 annually; a ban on foreigners buying land and establishing a foreign ownership register; moving public service jobs out of Wellington to regional areas; holding a referendum on the anti-smacking law; and installing New Zealand woollen carpets in all government departments, schools and agencies.
Peters, 72, is fiercely independent and often unpredictable. Since Saturday’s election he has been holed up in his Northland home, which is only accessible by road during low-tide. He has given no indication of who he intends to back.