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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Richard Shaw, Professor of Politics, Massey University

After weeks of policy debate, disputed fiscal plans, sloganeering and no small amount of rancour, the election campaign has come down to a single, uninspiring contest of negatives: use your vote to avoid uncertainty, “chaos” and even a second election.

On one level, this is a reaction from both National and Labour to the rise of NZ First and the potential for difficult coalition arrangements on the right or (less likely) the left. But at another level it feels quite in keeping with the generally dour tone of the campaign so far.

Perhaps this partly reflects a kind of exhaustion in the electorate after a difficult few years, including the economic after-effects of a global pandemic. But much of it has to do with the nature of the party political leadership on offer.

The former British Conservative politician Rory Stewart recently argued that politics is a vocation. What people expect from its practitioners are commitment, principled behaviour, new and good ideas – vision even.

Whether you agreed with it or not (and plenty did in 2020, including many who voted for Labour for the first and possibly last time), former prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s ability to articulate a vision of a better world set the emotional climate at the past two elections.

Neither of the men vying for the top job this time have had anything like the same galvanising impact on voters.

Any vision on offer from the major parties has been more of the bread-and-butter variety (to borrow a phrase): tax “relief”, cost-of-living adjustments, dental care and welfare-to-work incentives.

If voters have been looking for a bigger picture, they will likely have been drawn to other parties: the Greens, ACT, Te Pāti Māori and even The Opportunities Party (TOP). And with NZ First now polling as potential kingmaker, Labour and National find themselves painted into their own corners, both promising “stability” but not a lot more.

The old normal

In certain respects, the 2023 campaign has been a reversion to type – the reassertion of patterns that become visible if we look back further than the 2020 or 2017 elections.

For a start, we are going to see the end of single-party majority government. In 2020, charisma and COVID propelled Ardern and Labour past the 50% mark for the first time since the adoption of the mixed member proportional (MMP) system in 1996 (even if they never really behaved like a ruling party).

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Such governments were all New Zealand knew under the previous first-past-the-post electoral system. Unlike Ardern’s Labour, of course, none of those governments won a majority of the popular vote after 1951. So a single-party majority administration is even harder to achieve under MMP.

That will be increasingly the case in future, given the slow decline over recent decades in the numbers voting for either Labour or National.

Across the three elections held during the 1970s, the combined vote share captured by the two major parties was 85.7%. By the 1990s, that had tumbled to just over 71%. And although it rose to 75.7% across the 2010s, on current polling National and Labour look set to win just two-thirds of all party votes between them.

This tectonic process is opening up the electoral landscapes to the left of Labour and right of National. It is evident in both the composition of parliament (which is more diverse than it once was) and in the process of forming multi-party governments.

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In the longer term, however, there are questions about where this trend away from the political centre (at least as it is represented by Labour and National) is heading.

New Zealand hasn’t reached the levels of political polarisation and radicalisation apparent in other parts of the world. But last year’s occupation of parliament grounds, and some of the fringe movements and nastier episodes during this year’s campaign, suggest we could see a further fracturing of what has, historically, been a relatively homogeneous populace.

Turn off or turn out?

A lot of what happens after Saturday’s election will depend on how many people choose to vote.

Turnout tends to spike when an electoral contest is tight, and drop away if voters think the outcome is done and dusted. For a while, the polling gap between left (Greens, Labour, Te Pāti Māori) and an ascendant right (ACT and National) suggested a low turnout might be on the cards.

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The NZ First wildcard may alter things. And with recent polls showing 10% of voters undecided, there may be more uncertainty than was assumed just a couple of weeks ago. But either way, there has been a historical trend towards lower turnouts.

Between 2011 and 2017, voter numbers climbed from 69.6% of those eligible to vote (the lowest since the late 1800s) to 79.8% (still well down on the 92.3% achieved in 1938). But turnout dipped to 77.3% of age-eligible voters in 2020, and could continue to drop this year.

The risk is more pronounced for Labour, which has been polling at lows not seen since before Ardern became leader in 2017. But low turnout could also hurt the National Party if enough voters fail to heed Christopher Luxon’s call to give it a clear mandate.

That will see Luxon and National having to negotiate with both ACT and NZ First from a weaker position, dealing with NZ First’s mix of populism and economic nationalism, and ACT holding out the possibility of supporting National on confidence only.

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The formation – much less the day-to-day management – of a three-party government would pose a challenge for a National leader with only three years of parliamentary experience under his belt.

Yet this is what MMP was intended to do: to blunt the ability of a single political party (generally elected with a minority of the vote) to impose its policy agenda, and to reflect – in the composition of both parliament and the government – our increasingly fluid voting behaviour and changing demography.

Elections are how governments are formed, and what governments do (and don’t do) has material consequences for people’s lives. So this election matters no less than any other, and it isn’t over until the polls close on Saturday night.

The Conversation

Richard Shaw no recibe salario, ni ejerce labores de consultoría, ni posee acciones, ni recibe financiación de ninguna compañía u organización que pueda obtener beneficio de este artículo, y ha declarado carecer de vínculos relevantes más allá del cargo académico citado.

ref. NZ Election 2023: from one-way polls to threats of coalition ‘chaos’, it’s been a campaign of two halves –