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New Zealand’s general election campaign is now well under way, with New Zealanders going to the polls on 26 November to determine the shape of their 50th Parliament.

New Zealanders will also be asked whether they wish to change their electoral system – currently New Zealand uses a proportional electoral system called MMP (Mixed Member Proportional Representation). New Zealanders switched to MMP from ‘first past the post’ in 1994.

Under MMP, New Zealanders get two votes – an electorate vote to determine their local MP, and a party vote which decides the share of seats each party will have in Parliament. To qualify for list seats a party needs to win either 5% of the national vote or at least one single member electorate.

There are 70 single member seats, and 50 top up party list seats. A party which does poorly in the single member seats will see it’s share in Parliament ‘topped up’ through the list seats. The entire parliamentary representation of some smaller parties, such as the Greens, is comprised of list seats. Other smaller parties, such as ACT, rely on winning a sole single member electorate to qualify for party list top-ups.

Complicating things a little further are the Maori seats – an innovation dating back to 1867, which guarantees Maori representation in Parliament. 7 of the 70 single member seats are elected from the Maori register. These Maori seats are likely to be a three way contest between Labour, the Maori Party and the Mana Party (the latter being Hone Harawira’s recently-founded breakaway from the Maori party).

New Zealand currently has a centre-right National Party government, led by Prime Minister John Key. The government is a stable minority, supported by the smaller ACT, Maori and United Future parties. Opposing them are the New Zealand Labour Party, the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand and Jim Anderton’s single seat Progressive Party. Winston Peters’ New Zealand First party is also contesting the election – NZ First currently has no seats in Parliament, as the 4.1% of the vote they received in 2008 was below the 5% threshold needed to qualify for list seats.

With just over three weeks until election day, the polling evidence is pretty clear as to the likely winner:

John Key’s National Party is averaging around 55% in the polls, pointing squarely to a post-election National majority. Opposition leader Phil Goff’s Labour Party is trailing badly at around 30%, while the Greens are polling around 10% (although opinion polls have traditionally somewhat overestimated Green support, so this figure comes with a bit of a health warning).

All of the smaller parties are averaging well under the 5% threshold in the polls, meaning they’ll all be relying on winning at least one single member electorate to get into the 50th parliament. ACT, in particular, will need to pull out all the stops to retain their seat in Epsom (currently held by their leader Rodney Hide). The Progressive Party are not contesting this election, following the retirement of their sole MP Jim Anderton.

Mr Key’s lead is even stronger when voters are asked who is their preferred Prime Minister – Mr Key polls consistently over 55%, compared with Mr Goff’s rating of around 10% (a remarkably low figure for the leader of a party with around 30% support).

Incumbency is another factor in Mr Key’s favour – New Zealanders vote every three years (a shorter parliamentary term than in most other mature democracies) and the last time an incumbent government was kicked out after just one term in office was back in 1975.

So far, this year’s election campaign has yet to really catch fire and is not exactly shaping up as a close contest. For all but the most politically minded of New Zealand observers, 2011 remains likely to be far more memorable for the All Blacks rugby heroics at Eden Park rather than for the general election result in three weeks time.


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