New Zealand election stalemate leaves maverick populist Winston Peters as kingmaker

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 September, 2017, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 September, 2017, 10:28pm

New Zealand’s cliffhanger election ended in a stalemate on Saturday, leaving maverick populist Winston Peters of the New Zealand First (NZF) party to decide whether conservative Prime Minister Bill English or his youthful challenger Jacinda Ardern forms government.

English delivered an unexpectedly strong performance to claim 46 per cent of the vote, while Ardern fell short, finishing on 36.

“Of course we were hoping for higher ... obviously we hoped for better,” said Ardern, the 37-year-old who looked set for an upset win after taking over the centre-left Labour Party last month.

It could be two weeks before the outcome is known.

The major parties must forge coalitions to reach a majority under New Zealand’s proportional voting system, but all the existing groupings fell short.

On the final count, English’s National Party and current ally ACT had 59 seats, two shy of the 61 needed to win.

Ardern’s centre-left Labour Party and its preferred partner the Greens were on 54, still needing another seven.

That means neither can govern without Peters’ NZF, which claimed nine seats.

Peters, 72, a political veteran who has played kingmaker in two previous elections, said he had an important decision to make and would not be rushed.

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“As things stand we do have the balance of political responsibility and we’re not going to be hasty with that,” he said. “We’ll make a decision in the interests of all New Zealand and New Zealand First, that is the whole country ... that will take some time.”

The campaign has been the most volatile in recent memory, with momentum swinging from English to Ardern then back again.

English was in the driving seat to win a fourth term until Ardern took over Labour.

She galvanised support for the ailing party, giving it a 20-point popularity boost to draw level with National.

But the “Jacinda-mania” phenomenon waned as English attacked her financial credibility while pointing to his economic record over the past nine years.

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She appeared deflated addressing the party faithful after the vote, saying she had given her all and apologising for not achieving enough.

Ardern said she still hoped to become prime minister as part of a Labour-Greens-NZF coalition, despite Peters’ historic differences of opinion with the Greens.

“I simply cannot predict at this point what decisions other leaders will make,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work in front of us still, not too much revelry.”

Greens leader James Shaw offered an olive branch to Peters.

“I know our parties don’t agree on everything, but now is the time to put those differences aside and to work together,” he said.

In contrast, English was bullish about his chances of securing a fourth-term for National, a feat that has not been achieved in New Zealand for more than 50 years.

“We go into negotiations with the intention of forming a stable government which enables this country to deliver for New Zealanders,” he said