Today's NZ Herald DigiPoll paints a fascinating potential electoral outcome. Their poll predicts National will get over 50% of the vote, yet could fail to form a Government.
Those who are not experts on electoral systems may wonder how this could happen.
Isn't the entire point of MMP to deliver proportional representation, so how could a party get 51% of the vote but a minority of the seats?
Audrey Young explains well in her article. It is the over-hang feature, when a party wins more electorate seats than its share of the party vote entitles them to. Parliament could have six over-hang seats, meaning a 126 seat Parliament. This then requires a Government to have 64 seats to govern, instead of 61.
All the latest polls are predicting it will be very very close between National being able to govern or having a hung Parliament. Here are the possible scenarios.
National majority Government
National needs to get 52% or more to be certain to be a majority Government. The four polls out in the last 24 hours have National from 49% to 51%. The Herald poll shows 51% may not be enough.
National has said that even if it gains a majority it will offer deals similar or better than in 2008 to the ACT, United Future, Maori and Green parties.
National can govern with support of ACT and/or United Future
These are the only two parties that have said they will support a National-led Government. The Conservative Party has not. The Green party has said it is extremely unlikely. The Maori Party has not. Mana has ruled it out and NZ First have said they will not commit to confidence and supply for either major party.
If ACT and United Future do not make it back to Parliament, then if National fails to get a majority, the outcome is a hung Parliament where the Maori Party and Winston Peters will decide who governs.
This should weigh heavily on the voters of Epsom and Ohariu.
Maori Party hold the balance of power
If the Maori Party hold the balance of power, it may be a long time until we know who gets to form Government. They will hold hui up and down the country, to guide them on whether or not to make John Key or Phil Goff Prime Minister.
In the last three years the Maori Party has voted with Labour and Greens more often than they have with National. Their manifesto has much more in common with Labour. Labour will offer them far bigger spending (and debt but hey lets ignore that for now) on Maori projects and initiatives then National could. They are all powerful reasons for the Maori Party to go with Labour.
Working in National's factor is they have a better existing relationship with the Maori Party and a deal with National may involve fewer parties.
However it is worth remembering that in 2008 the Maori Party did not choose to go with National over Labour. Labour were unable to form a Government. If a Labour-led Government is possible in 2011, the Maori Party would be very worried about their ability to retain the electorate seats in 2014 if they do not go with Labour.
NZ First holds the balance of power
This is the real wild card. Peters as usual has left lots of wriggle room, and as we learnt in 1996 and 2005, is entirely capable of doing the exact opposite of what everyone thought he had said he would do.
Peters has said he will not agree to support either National nor Labour on supply and confidence. This means he wants to retain the right to decide at any stage whether or not to vote for or against the Government.
If Peters keeps his word, then what would happen is that National would attempt to govern. However in February 2012 there will be a vote on the confidence motion as part of the address in reply doting for debate. If NZ First maintain their stance of not having confidence in either major party, the Government will lose that confidence vote and there will be a new general election.
Another alternative is that NZ First abstain in February on supply and confidence, but then it is likely they would vote against the budget in July, and at that point the Government will fall.
The other alternative if NZ First hold the balance of power is that they back a Labour-led Government. Based on the polls of the last 24 hours Labour would need the support of the Greens, NZ First and the Maori and Mana parties to govern. They would all have to agree to their budget, and all would have to agree for any law to be passed. I'd predict that Parliament would not be required to meet very often, as Labour would try and implement as much policy as possible through regulations and departmental policy decisions, rather than votes in Parliament.
Labour led government
The chances of a Labour-led Government is not high based on the latest polls, but it is not at all impossible. If NZ First and the Maori Party hold the balance of power, it will come down to how badly each major party leader wants to be Prime Minister.
Phil Goff joined the Labour Party in 1969. He became a Member of Parliament in 1981. Parliament has been his life, and being Prime Minister his most frustrated ambition. He will not walk away from an opportunity to form a Government, and will offer the Maori Party and NZ First whatever he has to, to make him Prime Minister and get Labour back into office. NZ First has billions of dollars of spending promises, and I don't think a few billion more debt will put Labour off doing a deal. Let the next Government after them worry about how to pay it off.
John Key has already achieved his aim of being Prime Minister. He is not motivated (like Helen Clark was) to keep the job for as long as possible, and break Seddon's 13 year record in the top job. Key definitely only wants to remain Prime Minister if he can actually achieve things in the top job. A Government that is unable to actually advance an agenda it believes in, is not one he will want to lead. He won't offer the potential coalition partners billions of dollars of spending promises, that will increase the deficit and debt, and this may mean he becomes the temporary Leader of the Opposition.
So people who think that the election tomorrow is merely about whether National is a majority or minority Government may get a huge shock. The election is absolutely still about whether John Key or Phil Goff will be Prime Minister, and every vote may be critical.
Helen Clark got 28% in 1996 and almost become Prime Minister. Even if Phil Goff gets less than 28% of the vote for Labour, he might still become Prime Minister. That is how MMP works - it is not the party that gets the most votes that governs, but the party that can get the majority of MPs to support it.
I won't tell people who to vote for, as my views are obvious. But regardless of who you vote for, make sure you vote and have your say.
*David Farrar is a centre-right blogger and affiliated with the National Party. A disclosure statement on his political views can be found here.