The outcome of the 2017 election is, as I write, too close to call.

We won't know for sure how the cards have fallen until the special votes - accounting for perhaps as much as 15 per cent of the total - are counted.

And then there is the uncertainty as to which way (and with whom) the coalition negotiations will go. It is likely to be a long wait until October 12.

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Before then, though, we can make some interim judgments.

National did well as the incumbent and, after three terms, to secure the largest number of votes.

But it is left looking somewhat exposed. With United Future and the Maori party departing the scene, it has to look elsewhere to form a majority - and the deal with Act in Epsom brought it only a potential problem and no extra seats.

Furthermore, it has to find a new partner or partners against the background where more votes were cast against it than to retain power - a point that might have some bearing on how a future coalition might be constituted.

Nor could (or at least should) National and its supporters feel comfortable about the way they resorted to "attack politics" and deliberate misrepresentation in order to scare the voters into voting for them.

National's supposed $11.7 billion "hole" in Labour's fiscal plans was a complete fabrication - not a single economist could be found anywhere to endorse it.

The way in which opinions were swayed by such disreputable tactics speaks ill of our democracy and leaves it all the poorer. We must hope that such disregard for principle - a subject on which Bill English already has an unfortunate track record - is not carried into government.

The desertion of the Maori Party by Maori voters suggests that it has learnt the lesson that its future cannot be safely entrusted to a government whose main priority is advancing the interests of its business friends.

Pakeha voters sharing similar concerns could well take note. For Labour, and its Maori MPs, the responsibility now is to show that it is worthy of the trust reposed in it by Maori voters.

Whoever ends up forming a government, there can surely be no doubt about who was "woman of the match".

Jacinda Ardern played a blinder, taking Labour from "no-hoper" territory to the verge of victory in just a few short weeks. She made all the running - and will certainly live to fight another day, whether in government or not.

The Greens were the disaster story of the election - largely their own fault - but held on staunchly, and they stand ready to play their part in forming a progressive government.

But it is Winston Peters and New Zealand First on whom the spotlight now falls.

Which way will Winston go? Will he talk first to National, as the largest party, as many seem to expect?

We should take nothing for granted. Winston is a student of how our constitution works, particularly under MMP. He knows that there is no rule or convention that gives the inside running to the largest party when it has no majority.

And he knows that there is no special value attached to votes for the largest party.

A vote for the smallest party has the same weight as a vote for National. All that matters is the number of votes and their translation into the number of seats. Anyone with a majority of seats in Parliament - whether from just one party or several - will be able to form a government.

He will read the runes, recognising that "more of the same" is hardly a rallying cry when there are so many pressing issues needing solutions and so many for whom "the same" means poverty and lost opportunity, poorer health and education, and a society that is less caring and sharing.

Winston declared on election night that he had lost patience with the powerful interests that he saw as controlling our politics.

He now has the chance to be not just a bit player in shoring up another National government, but to play a major role - as an elder statesman and foundation member - in a new government that catches the incoming tide.