New Zealand has experienced a huge amount of change in its party system over the last two decades. The resignation of Jim Anderton from the Labour Party in 1989, which resulted in the formation of the Alliance in 1991, was followed by the formation of New Zealand First in 1993, and a huge amount of party evolution over the term of the 1993-6 Parliament. Following the first MMP election in 1996, every single party in the Parliament included former members of the Fourth Labour Government of 1984-90, including the National government.
In the early years of MMP, the minor parties were largely dominated by parties led by former major party politicians, particularly Alliance, New Zealand First and ACT. After gradual evolution, the recent campaign has moved New Zealand’s party system onto a different level.
The vast number of political parties have effectively been reduced to five parties, all of which appear to have a path to long term sustainability. The three remaining parties that were dominated by major-party splitters, NZF, UF and Progressive, were reduced to two seats. Winston Peters’ party was destroyed, while Peter Dunne and Jim Anderton have effectively been reduced to independent MPs, and their parties are expected to disappear with their eventual retirements. Indeed, this could be hastened sooner, with Dunne barely holding on over either Labour or National in his seat, with a three-way race barely going his way.
For a long time the political spectrum was crowded, with ACT, United Future and New Zealand First competing for the conservative minor party vote, and with Alliance and later Progressive competing with the Greens and later the Maori Party for the progressive minor party vote. With the demise of NZF, UF and Progressive, ACT, the Greens and to a lesser extent the Maori Party appear to be in a much stronger position to solidify their role in New Zealand politics.
Indeed, NZ politics now closely resembles German politics, with a centre-left major party, a centre-right major party, a libertarian right-wing minor party and a left-wing green party. The main divergence is the existence of the Maori Party. Such a political make-up suggests a much more stable long-term political system.
The other aspect of the 2008 campaign was the formation of pre-election coalitions, with all parties except the Maori Party clearly indicating which major party they would support. For ACT and the Greens, rather than attempting to use their seats to leverage power, they campaigned to National and Labour voters respectively as another option to vote for the same party for government while pushing them in a particular direction.
It is quite conceivable that both ACT and the Greens, which have a much clearer political niche now carved out than Progressive, United Future or New Zealand First ever did, can now carve out a long-term base that will allow them to solidify their position as supportive but critical allies of National and Labour respectively.
It is less clear what will happen to the Maori Party, who have failed to increase their party vote and will be vulnerable to a resurgent Labour Party in the Maori electorates, and would disappear if the Maori seats were eventually abolished. Yet it is clear that NZ politics is suddenly much more stable and consistent than it has been since the late 1980s.