The final block of votes in the New Zealand election has been counted two weeks after election day, bolstering the opposition Labour party but leaving neither major party with enough votes to form government.
Counting of the 17% of ballots considered “special votes” showed the incumbent National party has lost two seats while Labour and the Greens have each picked up an extra one.
Neither the National party, led by a revitalised Bill English, nor the Labour party, led by Jacinda Ardern, have been in a position to take office after the 23 September election ended in a stalemate. On election night the ruling National party won 58 seats and Labour 45 – both short of the 61 needed to form a government in the 120-seat parliament.
The extra Green seat means New Zealand will gets its first ever refugee MP. Golriz Ghahraman arrived in the country as a nine-year-old from Iran, and studied human rights law at Oxford University and worked for the UN as a lawyer.
Ghahraman told Fairfax New Zealand she was “excited and really, really humbled”.
A National/NZ First government would have 65 seats, while a Labour/Greens/NZ First government would have 63 seats.
James Shaw, the co-leader of the Greens which has eight seats, has repeatedly said his party would support Labour, and suspicions the Greens could switch their allegiance to National was nothing more than “noise”.
Jacinda Ardern said the final election count strengthened her party’s “mandate for change” and negotiations with NZ First would now begin in earnest.
“The final vote tally shows how this election galvanised people to enrol and vote with the highest turnout since 2005,” Ardern said.
“This reinforces the mandate for negotiations to form a stable, durable and progressive Labour-led government, a government I would be proud to lead.”
The Green party said the results showed New Zealand was ready for a change of government. “The results released today push us closer towards the change of government that so many New Zealanders want,” said Shaw. “With the Green party, Labour and New Zealand First combined, there is now a strong majority for change across our parliament”
Shaw also said he was “thrilled” to welcome Ghahraman to parliament as a Greens MP, and said her experience in international law and human rights would be invaluable to caucus and parliament.
However, Prime Minister Bill English said the final vote count made it “clear” that voters wanted National to govern for a fourth term.
“I remain as determined as ever to lead a strong, stable government for the next three years that will deliver on the hopes and aspirations of all New Zealanders,” he said. “Not since 1969 has the National party finished ahead of the Labour opposition at four successive elections, and I want to thank everyone involved in this historic achievement.”
Peters held short meetings with Labour and National this week but has repeatedly said the real negotiations would not take place before all the votes had been counted.
Now the final tally is known, serious negotiations between NZ First and the major parties are expected to begin in earnest tomorrow.
English said a timeframe of “two to three weeks” was reasonable for coalition negotiations to take place between his party and NZ First, though Peters has said he would make a decision by 12 October.
English described Peters as a “maverick” but said his positions on certain issues were well known and could be reflected in a National-NZ First coalition government. “People want to continue with the economic direction and they voted for progress,” English told Radio New Zealand. “We have yet to secure a mandate to govern … but I think there is a clear indication from voters of continuing the direction National campaigned on.”
English added he had known Peters a long time and the National party would not rule anything out before talking privately to Peters. “He understands his role; he’s very experienced. Some of his long-held positions I think he would expect to be reflected in government policy.”
Ardern has said Labour and NZ First have many “shared values” which include exploring a manned re-entry of the Pike river mine, increasing the minimum wage, improving the education system, and a desire to address the housing crisis.
“There are some shared values, and not least changing away from the status quo that we have had for the past nine years,” said Ardern this week. “But all of those discussions we will be leaving to the negotiating table. I see a lot of commonality between both parties … I don’t want to presume what will be a hurdle.”
Over the past nine years of National government, Peters has repeatedly opined on his many “bottom lines” if he were to form a coalition government. These may include plans to slash migration to 10,000 a year – a drop of more than 60,000; a ban on foreigners buying land, and establishment of a foreign ownership register; moving public service jobs out of Wellington to regional areas; holding a referendum on the anti-smacking law; and installing New Zealand woollen carpets in all government departments, schools and agencies.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to the thousands of volunteers that helped me get here but also to everyone around the world who has reached out since I became a candidate,” she said. “Being someone from the Middle East making it to parliament is gratifying,” the daughter of Iranian political asylum seekers said.
“We get to stand as a counterpart to the politics of Trumpism and division and hate and Brexit, and I’m really proud of that.”
Both major parties are now required to form coalition agreements with minor parties in order to govern, and have been be forced to woo New Zealand First’s Winston Peters, an unpredictable populist who has been left as the kingmaker after winning nine seats.