Comment

NZ and Germany gearing for continuity or change

New Zealand and Germany will both hold elections this weekend. These two countries could hardly be further apart - geographically and in terms of political power. Germany is an economic powerhouse, and increasingly looked to as a leader of the Western world. New Zealand is a country of just 4.5 million inhabitants far away in the South Pacific. Yet the two elections share a number of striking similarities. In both cases a centre-right government – National and the German Christian Democrats (CDU)  - is looking to renew their mandate for a fourth term.

They are both currently governing in coalition, and are fighting their electoral battle under a mixed member proportional (MMP) system.

Both also have new centre-left leaders that have triggered an initial upswing in support for their parties. ‘Jacindamania’ struck New Zealand in early August, when Jacinda Ardern took over as the Labour Party leader and popular support for Labour surged ahead. Labour was more than 20 points behind in July, but recently overtook National in a Colmar Brunton poll. Although another poll put National well ahead of Labour, and many pundits say the election is too close to call.

Due to the MMP system, both countries also have a number of smaller parties jockeying to be a coalition partner. Both have also seen strong support for anti-immigration parties.

In Germany ‘Martinmania’ struck in February, soon after Martin Schulz took over the leadership of the German Social Democrat Party (SPD). A series of polls in February and March put the SPD ahead, or in a close tie with the CDU. A stark change from 2016 polls which had them trailing by around 10 percent.

But Schulz’s surge died off in May, and a recent poll has the CDU at 38, and the SPD trailing with just 22 percent support.

Due to the MMP system, both countries also have a number of smaller parties jockeying to be a coalition partner. Both have also seen strong support for anti-immigration parties. In Germany all the four largest minor parties are polling neck-and-neck. The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), Die Linke (The Left), and the Greens are all polling around 7 –10 percent. However, most eyes are on the anti-immigrant, populist party Alternative Fur Deutschland (AfD) which could be the third largest party in parliament. (They fell short of 5% of the vote in 2013 and missed entering parliament.) 

Meanwhile, in New Zealand there are also four minor parties likely to get into parliament - the libertarian ACT party, the Māori Party, the Greens, and there’s New Zealand First, New Zealand’s own nationalist party, polling like the AfD at around 8-11 percent.

Many New Zealanders and Germans are concerned by the strong support for these nationalist parties. The AfD, originally an anti-Euro currency party, rose in prominence after Merkel opened the borders to refugees in August-September 2015 and since then have consistently polled over the 5 percent threshold.

Although many Germans welcomed the refugees with open arms, there was also concern from some (particularly in East Germany) that Muslim refugees would undermine Christian German society and voters turned to the AfD in droves in state elections (they won 20 percent of the votes, beating the CDU in Merkel’s home state Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in 2016). The AfD’s party platform is strongly anti-immigration, and anti-Islam, and states that “Islam does not belong to Germany”.

The party wants to establish an armed border defense, return refugees as efficiently as possible to their country of origin, and ensure that white German women have more babies (a startling campaign poster shows a pregnant white German woman with the slogan “We’ll make our babies ourselves”). They also want to see a shift in power away from the EU and other international institutions into the hands of German citizens and recommend Swiss style referendums on a regular basis, and for all international treaties.

They are climate-skeptics, and would abandon Germany’s ‘energiewende’ (energy transition), which has seen Germany invest heavily in renewables.

New Zealand First also espouses nationalist, anti-immigration policies and are keen on referendums, but are very different in character to the AfD. They have not, for instance, stated that “Islam [or any other religion] does not belong in NZ” , nor tried to encourage white New Zealanders to have more babies. Many of their policies are more centrist and they endorse policies to mitigate climate change.

Germany has a strong history of grand coalitions between the two major parties, and New Zealand does not.

So what’s most likely to happen this weekend?

Here’s where the two countries differ. First, Germany has a strong history of grand coalitions between the two major parties, and New Zealand does not. Secondly, in Germany, all the parties have announced they will not form a coalition with the AfD, whereas New Zealand First could well be a ‘king-maker’ in coalition talks, a position it has held in the past.  In Germany, a very likely scenario is another grand coalition involving the SPD and CDU.

Other scenarios include the so-called ‘Jamaica coalition’ of Greens, Liberals (yellow) and CDU (black), but the Greens and Liberals don’t see eye-to-eye. Many progressives are hoping for a Red-Red-Green coalition (like Berlin’s current government) but even the leader of Die Linke has stated this is unlikely.

There’s also the ‘Pizza Coalition’ of Greens and CDU, but is unlikely given lack of votes. Meanwhile in New Zealand, progressives are hoping for a Labour-Greens government (the two parties signed a memorandum of understanding, which mean Labour has agreed to offer Greens the first chance in coalition talks).

But even in the best of the current polls, Labour and Greens would need New Zealand First and/or the Māori Party to form a coalition. If National get back in, they could form a coalition with long-term partners ACT and the Māori Party as well as bringing Winston on board.

My prediction given current polling trends is a clear win for Merkel, and New Zealand is teetering between continuity and change.

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