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Strong showing from National but Winston Peters holds main card

Opinion Piece

The smoke of battle is fading after one of the most unusual elections in many years and now the end game, the hard work of negotiating a government for the next three years, begins.

There were three big winners from Saturday night.

Bill English responded to a serious threat from the centre left with a huge result that saw his party 10 percentage points ahead of Labour and tantalisingly close to being able to govern alone. His election-night smile showed what it meant to banish the memory of 2002 when he led National to its worst ever electoral defeat.

The Green Party’s James Shaw was another winner. Faced with a disastrous poll plunge just ahead of the election, he rallied his forces to take the party over the crucial 5 percent mark.

And then of course there is the old lion Winston Peters. With his party collecting 7.5 percent of the party vote, he is exactly where he wants to be — the kingmaker.

While she honestly admitted “we hoped for better”, you could not call Jacinda Ardern a loser. She transformed a moribund party to a serious challenger. While Labour finished well behind National on the night, this is MMP and there is now a credible opportunity for Labour and the Greens to form a coalition government with NZ First — though they really need special votes to add another seat or two to their tally.

The biggest casualty of the night was the Maori Party. Formed as a result of the foreshore and seabed controversy, it seems to have ended its natural life. Labour has taken all its seats, and its revival is hard to see.

In another twist, both main-party candidates for the East Coast electorate will be in Parliament. Anne Tolley, a Cabinet Minister since 2008, had a comfortable majority of 4653 and Labour’s Kiri Allan gets in on the party’s list.

Saturday night is now history and speculation will steadily grow on whom Winston Peters will anoint as his partner and with that Prime Minister. As he did in the same situation 20 years ago, he will drive a hard bargain. There is a lot of work ahead for English and National before Peters’ nominated October 12 deadline.