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First MMP election, power with Peters

Editorial

Twenty-five years ago today New Zealand held its first MMP election, which eventually saw victory for the incumbent National Party led by Jim Bolger after protracted negotiations with New Zealand First.

National won 30 of the 65 enlarged electorate seats, which had to be reduced in number from 99 because of the new electoral system. Labour won 26 and NZ First won six (including all five Maori seats), the highest number for any minor party in over 50 years.

It was the new “party vote” under the Mixed Member Proportional voting system that mattered for the distribution of seats in Parliament. On this count National won 33.9 percent, the opposition Labour Party led by Helen Clark won 28.2 percent and NZ First won 13.4 percent.

Similarly to the 2017 election result, this meant Winston Peters was the “kingmaker”, able to provide a majority to either of the two main parties (with Labour also needing The Alliance on board).

It was widely expected that he would ally with Labour and make Clark our first female prime minister. Peters had been highly critical of his former National Party colleagues and even appeared to rule out a coalition with them.

Bolger had dismissed him as Maori Affairs Minister in 1991 over his criticism of the Government’s economic, fiscal and foreign ownership policies. Peters had continued to publicly criticise the party and in 1992 National sought to prevent him from standing for it or any other party at the 1993 election, which he successfully challenged in the high court before resigning from National in early 1993, winning a by-election as an independent then forming NZ First just before the 1993 election.

On December 10, 1996 Peters announced he had formed a coalition with National. Peters became deputy prime minister and treasurer. NZ First campaign manager Michael Laws later claimed that Peters decided early on to enter into an agreement with National, and used the month-long negotiations with both parties to win more concessions from Bolger.

Initial concerns over whether the pair could work together proved unfounded, however tensions did develop between Peters and the National Party which worsened after Jenny Shipley staged a coup in December 1997 and became prime minister. Peters was sacked again on August 14, 1998 and broke off the coalition; several of his MPs, including deputy leader Tau Henare, stayed on in government as a new Mauri Pacific party.