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World: Proportional Voting Disappoints New Zealanders

The proportional representation voting system is the subject of intense debate in New Zealand, which holds its second parliamentary election under the system this weekend. Correspondent Ben Partridge looks at the pros and cons of a system which some say allows more minority participation in government and others say leads only to instability.

London, 25 November (RFE/RL) -- New Zealand voters will take sides in a battle on Saturday (Nov. 27) between Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, leader of the conservative National Party, and Helen Clark, leader of the center-left Labor Party. It is the first Western election in which the two major parties are led by women.

But in this election, like the one before it, traditional party politics have been thrown into disarray. The system of proportional representation, introduced at the last general election in 1996, has reduced the influence of the major parties, and given small newcomers a bigger voice.

Polls show that most New Zealanders are unhappy with the decision to adopt a partial system of proportional representation, similar to the German model. Under that model, some seats in parliament are allotted to parties, not individuals, based on the percentage of the vote taken by each party. Other seats are directly elected.

More than half of New Zealanders want to return to the traditional, British-style, "first-past-the-post" voting system. Under that system, all seats are directly elected, with individual candidates competing for each seat.

Voters who are critical of proportional representation say it has given New Zealand three years of weak and unstable government, in which minor parties representing narrow sectional interests have had too much say.

But supporters say it is a much fairer system, and that New Zealand has not yet given it a proper chance to work.

Peter Facey is from the Electoral Reform Society in London, which campaigns for proportional voting in Britain, and is watching the New Zealand ballot closely. He says a proportional system has clear advantages:

"You tend to produce more consensual politics with all sections of society better represented in parliament. It tends to not produce so [many] swings from left to right, and it also tends to produce more women and ethnic minorities than do majoritarian systems or plurality systems like first-past-the-post."

Under the first-past-the-post system, it is more common for a single party or a like-minded coalition of parties to win a clear majority and thus the chance to form a government. Under proportional representation, smaller parties find it easier to win parliamentary seats, often leading to more idealogically diverse coalition governments.

Over the years many New Zealanders had grown disillusioned with first-past-the-post, saying it perpetuated a two-party system and did not reflect the wide diversity of views in the community. Critics said it did not give enough say to the Polynesian Maori minority, who make up less than 10 percent of the population in the former British colony.

The reformers won the argument, and in 1993 New Zealanders voted in a referendum to adopt the German model.

James Bolger of the National Party was prime minister at the time of the referendum, and formed the first government elected under the new system in 1996. Speaking in London this month, he said that despite some concerns, the ballot met reformers' hopes.

"Nevertheless the 1996 election met some of the important ambitions of those supporting [proportional representation]. The results did see a larger number of women and Maori elected than ever before. We also saw New Zealand's first Asian MP elected and three MPs of Pacific Island background."

But it took two months of wrangling in the new, multiparty environment before Bolger could put together a coalition government -- the first in 60 years. The lengthy arguments, and the composition of the government were a shock to a country used to a tradition of strong governments produced by the old, first-past-the-post voting system.

Moreover, as Bolger recalls, the coalition proved highly unstable:

"From my perspective, there never was any constitutional crisis. But equally there can be no dispute that there was a major political crisis. The coalition government that had been formed after a lengthy negotiation only 20 months earlier had collapsed in disarray, and the party of the junior coalition partner had splintered into many parts."

Bolger joked that "the growth in the number of political parties was much faster than the growth in the economy." Other problems which political scientists associate with proportional representation multiplied. Smaller parties in the coalition exercised more power in defining policy than their support in the community justified. Voters were angry that a coalition could be formed in horse-trading between parties that had earlier been outspoken in condemning each other.

Ultimately, voters were confused about policies, and irritated because low-caliber candidates gained party seats. Support for the system in opinion polls has dropped to only 30 percent.

Bolger says the old British-style system has many virtues, the chief being that voters get to elect the government they want and there is no coalition deal-making. After three "turbulent" years, he is convinced that first-past-the-post produces greater stability.

But Peter Facey of Britain's Electoral Reform Society argues that Germany's experience shows that proportional representation does work. He notes that over a period of decades Germany has produced one of the strongest economies and highest growth rates in Europe while delivering major benefits to citizens.

Facey argues that German politicians are accustomed to managing coalition politics, whereas New Zealand's politicians simply need more experience.