Bryce Edwards: Jacinda Ardern has a major problem with minor parties, and it could seal her fate

Bryce Edwards: Jacinda Ardern has a major problem with minor parties, and it could seal her fate

With a year until the next election, Jacinda Ardern may be extraordinarily personally popular, and Labour polling well, but neither fact will determine her fate.

In the end, all eyes will be on a handful of low-polling minor parties that could wield influence well beyond their size and ultimately determine the outcome.

Ardern’s Labour and the centre-right opposition National party are both currently polling around 40-45%. If we in New Zealand had a first-past-the-post election system, the largest party would be likely to win a majority of seats, delivering a single-party government (even without necessarily winning more than 50% of the vote).But under proportional representation, it’s not enough for either party to form a government. Both will need friends in parliament.

Currently, the minor parties have very low levels of support and may not survive beyond the next election. In recent times, New Zealanders have shied away from supporting these minnows. In fact, since the introduction of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system in 1996, every single minor party that has been in government has subsequently been punished with a worse election result.

The two most important parties for Ardern’s survival are the current coalition partners, the Greens (currently with 6-7% support in opinion polls) and the nationalist New Zealand First (3-4% support).

But there are no guarantees the Greens will make it over 5%. At times during the past two years they have dropped below that in opinion polls. And at the last election, a scandal involving one of its co-leaders admitting to benefit fraud saw its support levels plummet overnight.

On current polling, Winston Peters’ New Zealand First would be out of parliament. Although many expect their support will pick up in election year, it’s far from certain, and they have dropped below 5% in two elections before, both times after periods in government.

NZ First might have a chance of winning the seat of Northland. There is speculation the party’s outspoken MP and cabinet minister Shane Jones – a likely replacement for Peters when he eventually leaves politics – could take the seat off the main opposition National party, especially if Labour agrees to only run a soft campaign against him.

However, even if NZ First is returned, there’s no reason to assume they will necessarily support Ardern for PM. In 2017 they surprised many in choosing Labour to govern, but if they are post-election “kingmakers” again in 2020, they are theoretically able to swing either way, making the outcome hard to predict.

The National party, with its lacklustre leader, Simon Bridges, is in a very uncertain position. They desperately need parliamentary allies, and NZ First doesn’t appear that friendly at the moment. The Greens are essentially tied to Labour.

National does have the rightwing Act party with one MP, but that’s only thanks to an understanding that National won’t fully campaign for their seat. Act has been edging up in recent polls and could bring in another MP.

Bridges is suggesting that other minor parties might emerge to act as coalition partners. The possibility of a new Christian-based party making the 5% threshold or winning an electorate seat would be miraculous.

However, Bridges knows that his best chance is not making new friends in parliament, but rather taking out Ardern’s current support parties. It’s a cunning, if very cynical plan.

A number of new “micro parties” will be attempting to make it into parliament in 2020. They have little chance of success, but they do have the potential to have a big impact. Two small environmentally-focused parties – Sustainable NZ and the Opportunities party – could end up acting as spoilers, stealing votes from the Greens and sinking them under the crucial 5% threshold.

It’s a ridiculous situation. The arbitrary 5% threshold can see parties destroyed because they get 4.9% and their supporters’ votes are wasted, while major-party manipulation with electorate deals sees parties elected with less than 1% support – as is the case with National’s sweetheart deal with the Act party.

This has all sorts of implications. Not only does it mean new parties struggle to get consideration – as it’s very hard to build up a party when the public fears a “wasted vote” – but it also means that a few small shifts of support for the minor parties will have a big impact on who might govern. And the biggest impact could be from parties with minuscule support – for example, the Act party on 1-2%, but who could win a seat outright, or the potential spoiler effects of the new environmental parties.

So, in 2020, the minor parties are the ones to watch. They will determine if Jacinda Ardern gets a second term. Ardern will continue to wipe the floor with Bridges when it comes to personal popularity. But this will count for nothing if she hasn’t got enough coalition friends.