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Mythbusting: Largest party must govern

Written By: - Date published: 9:58 am, November 4th, 2008 - 46 comments
Categories: election 2008 - Tags:

Because the polls are showing a Labour, Greens, Progressives, Maori alliance could govern, National is crying that the largest party has some kind of ‘moral mandate’ to govern. Much as the cricket team which has the highest individual run scorer has the moral mandate to win the game, I guess. Back in the real world, though, it is common for governments in countries that use proportional representation to not include the largest party.

In the last 12 elections in the Netherlands, 3 have not included the largest party (the left-wing Workers’ Party)

The Social Democrats are the largest party in the Swedish Parliament but the right-wing Alliance for Sweden, led by the Moderate Party, governs. This was such an unexceptional event in Sweden that the Moderates and their allies declared victory within three hours of the results coming in and the leader of the Social Democrats resigned at the same time with nary a whimper about moral mandates.

In Germany, right-wing coalitions governed despite the Social Democrats being the largest party in 1949, 1965, 1982, 1983, 1987, and 1994.

In Austria in 2002, the major right-wing party won the most votes but the Social Democrats governed with the far-right party.

I could go on, but the point is this: the will of the people is what matters in a democracy and when the people have voted for a bloc of parties that can work together and command the confidence of Parliament that bloc is the legitimate government. National would have no moral mandate to govern when a majority of people had voted for parties that oppose, or are expected to oppose, National.

46 comments on “Mythbusting: Largest party must govern”

  1. higherstandard 1

    Just out of interest which of those countries have an MMP (or other proportional system)

  2. 08wire 2

    Well said and well researched, Steve. Nice job. I especially like the line about the cricket teams!

    (Although if we ever get to the point of having an 11-party coalition, then something will have gone seriously awry somewhere…)

  3. 08wire 3

    HS – The answer to that question is “all of them.” It is worth noting, in addition, that FPP-type systems cannot be relied on to have the most popular party win, either. They even have the most popular **movement** lose from time to time. Just ask Al Gore, or the New Zealand Labour Party circa 1978 and 1981.

  4. Daveski 4

    “the will of the people”

    How cute. The problem with MMP is that there is no such thing. It is the will of the parties and one of the reasons there is a backlash – from some – against MMP.

    Rest assured that should Labour have had the largest single bloc of votes, we could have expected quite a different analysis.

    Even so, as I’ve admitted before, I’ve rarely agreed with SP but in most occasions he attempts to provide some rationale for doing so (except for when it comes to “Aunty”* Helen’s performance on TV debates).

    * Helen herself referred to “Aunty” Helen with respect to the PI vote. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  5. NeillR 5

    SP, it’s not going to matter. The only question will be whether National chooses to take others into government with them, they are that far ahead.

  6. randal 6

    ah SP natoinal is just trying to run a conspiracy theory line for the uneducated and gullible among its supporters.
    you know the one.
    12 is a dozen.
    6 is half a dozen so where is the other half and why wont you tell us.
    when you look at the zoobies that Natoinal lines up for its photo ops around the place its no wonder that the most simplest parts of our constitiution are mangled and twisted out of shape so the dum dums can have something to get annoyed about and feel aggrieved about and hard done by because they are to stupid to do any thinking on the matter

  7. Daveski. you’re out of touch. People refer to Clark as Aunty Helen with affection throughout the Maori and Pacific communities. You might not know that in many Polynesian languages the words for aunt and uncle are not limited to blood, they can refer to any respected person, just as the word brother extends to cousins and other friends.

    Clark is referred to as Aunty Helen because she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of people including Pacific Islanders and she has delivered.

  8. Daveski. I never relied on some mythical moral mandate to oppose National’s attempts to form a government as the second largest party after the 2005 election. Why would I?

  9. yl 9

    Sorry to thread jack, but…

    The books are 800mil in the red. This is 1.7bil better then forecasts thought. Looks like Don Brash was correct a few weeks back when he said that the New Zealand economy is in one of the best positions to get through this eco crisis


  10. Razorlight 10


    I may be wrong but I can’t find a direct quote from any member of National, as you so eloquently put it “crying that the largest party has some kind of ‘moral mandate’ to govern”. I would be interested to hear which candidate has cried this. I don’t think there are any but am happy to be corrected.

    But here is my bleat. If the right block with 51 % of the vote misses out to the left block on 49% due to a the MP using their 7 seat overhang to give Helen a 4th term there will be alot more than crying. That will, in my opinion, be the end of MMP

    [crying is just tears, its extolling forcefully, it’s also being whinging little boy because the rules aren’t what you want them to be. The scenario of Right 51%, Left 49% is not the one that Key is refering to when he talks about the largest party having a moral mandate to govern. In your scenario, the Right is the largest bloc and you haven’t specified which bloc contains the largest party because its irrelevant. SP]

  11. Daveski 11

    SP – my comment was in reference to Helen’s use of it, not the community’s. That’s the bit I struggled with.

    Good point re 2005 so I withdraw my comment.

    I do think the “will of the people” is overstated in MMP. STV would be my preference now which would seem to take some of the powers away from the party and restore a bit more natural balance.

    I think your broader argument is pretty accurate ie NZer’s still think alone the lines of FPP. Having said that, Key and/or his strategists appear finally to have understood MMP and that’s one of the reasons Labour is struggling as much as it is.

  12. higherstandard 12


    I don’t think that will happen – much as I personally would like to see the Maori party tale all their sets it looks as though Parekura and Nania will both hold their seats.

    Despite that I still think that many are taking as a given that the Maori party will only support a Labour led government which is taking too much for granted.

  13. Ianmac 13

    Some have argued that the biggest party get to choose first, but they all mix and match until one bloc has a majority to take to the Governor General.
    It is conceivable that there could be a dead heat and I suppose there would have to be a new election and Labour would carry on in the interim. And show how to manage a recession.

  14. randal 14

    razorlight you are entitled to your opinion but I dont think its worth jack.
    the whole system is not going to change just because of an overhang in one election
    if you think it is then you are having obvious delusions along with the rest of the natoinal party who it seems are already looking for a grievance now that they know which way the wind is gonna blow

  15. I worked on STV. I don’t like it. There is no guarantee of proportionality and the results are actually the same most of the time as using FPP (assuming a 1 equates to a tick)

    Look at Australia, essentially a two party system and STV for the Senate has devolved into essentially a list system where you specify your favourite party and they allocate their preferred order of candidates.

    Having studied electoral systems at uni and professionally, I think MMP is the best one going (which is not to say its perfect). That’s why the Royal Commission recommended it and more countries are adopting it or its cousins

  16. Razorlight 16


    Agreed that it is unlikely. But the fact remains. To win the treasury benches you will need more than 61 seats.

    Is that the intention of MMP?

    My idea of proportional representation is if you can command 51% support you should have the right to govern. Under MMP this is not the reality.

  17. randal 17

    the intention of MMP is to elect a parliament. the parliament will then form a government
    it is far less complicated than the american electoral college and will produce a popular government no matter who has any clever ideas that dont mean very much in the wider scheme of things

  18. Razorlight 18

    And who from National has publicly said that the party with the largest vote should have the right to form a government.

    I still can’t find anyone who has said that, but then again I was wrong with something in 1986 as well

    [John Key has repeatedly stated that National would have a moral mandate to govern if it wins the most votes and minor parties should follow that. There are numerous articles on it, google ‘moral mandate john key’. SP]

  19. cocamc 19

    yl – how do you read that. The article says the forecast was for 943m surplus so $1.7 billion reversal.
    This is worse. company tax take down. tax adjustments are due to accruals

  20. Vinsin 20

    I think you’re dreaming if you think the right bloc is going to get 51% – they’ll get close, maybe 48, maybe 49%. But i think you’ll find on election night that their numbers just aren’t there. In 2005 national were polling around 45% – 49% in most polls and still looked unable – and unwilling – to form a coalition, they ended up getting far less as we all know. The news be it Tv3, Tv one, Herald, the dominion post, all need Polls to add some kind of weight to their particular brand of political entertainment; however the polls are nowhere near a bankable representation of how things will turn out on November the 8th.

  21. Ari 21

    One thing that strikes me as missing is that the situation being described is much like how Helen Clark didn’t have any moral mandate to govern when Don Brash was also trying to form a government. A stronger bargaining position, maybe… Do any of your recall anyone kicking up a fuss about that? I certainly don’t, so it seems incredibly opportunist for it to start now.

    How cute. The problem with MMP is that there is no such thing. It is the will of the parties and one of the reasons there is a backlash – from some – against MMP.

    How very cute. Listen, the parties recieve a mandate from the electorate in direct proportion to their number of party votes. If the electorate is not demanding enough information to make good decisions based on who can work together, then we’re merely reaping what we’ve sown if unexpected coalitions happen. Yes, the parties can override the will of the people- but understand that it’s a calculating risk every time they try.

    As for dissatisfaction with MMP- I’ve yet to see any evidence of widespread disfavour. It seems to be isolated to core National and Act supporters in my experience, although I’m open to the possibility that I just have a very pro-MMP circle of acquaintances.

  22. Chuck 22

    I’m not saying it was you, Steve, but a lot of people on the left were aghast that George W Bush claimed victory in 2000, and considered his victory tainted and Al Gore the rightful president – solely because Gore did better in the (meaningless) national popular vote.

  23. bill brown 23

    Re: dissatisfaction with MMP. Pundit quotes a study that shows voters who have only voted MMP are very much less inclined to get rid of it.

  24. randal 24

    and John Keys and his natoinal party are still lying through their teeth about anything and everything
    what a cynical view to have of the people of new zealand that they are prepared to just flat out lie almost all the time

  25. Lew 25

    Razorlight: For documentary evidence, here’s audio of John Key saying National would have `strong presumption of a moral mandate’ to lead a government: http://podcast.radionz.co.nz/mnr/mnr-20081027-0706-United_Future_Rules_Out_Talks_With_Labour_After_Election.ogg


    Captcha: `CLOSE disaster’

  26. Vanilla Eis 26

    Chuck: there was a delightful article in the NY Times last week about how it would be possible to win the presidency with 26% of the popular vote, assuming every eligible voter in the country participated. I’m at work so can’t find it easily, but I’m sure you can find it.

    The US does not have a proper democracy, at least not like they think they do.

    And as far as Al Gore went, it was more a case of the Supreme Court ordering the Florida recount to halt, thereby preventing knowing who actually won the election as at the time Bush was possibly ahead by mere hundreds of votes in a state where millions voted. I believe there were multiple counts going on, and some put Bush ahead, some Gore. Are you certain that Bush was the rightful President, considering that Florida may not have voted in his favour?

  27. Lew 27

    Chuck: I spend a fair bit of time (to the dismay of some of my good friends) defending the 2000 US presidential election result on these grounds – while there were shenanigans, they were legitimate shenanigans conducted by those constitutionally authorised to conduct such shenanigans. That result was a strong argument for electoral law reform, but a lot of people (on both sides) seem to want to take it and instances like it as reason to throw out the rule of law when it doesn’t suit them. Can’t happen.


  28. Lew 28

    Vanilla Eis: Are you certain that Bush was the rightful President, considering that Florida may not have voted in his favour?

    Yes, because the SCOTUS (never mind the fact it was stacked by Bush Sr) is the body charged with determining the lawfulness or otherwise of a recount, and they duly did so.

    You can argue that morally Gore should have won, but that’s different from arguing that electorally he didn’t win, which isn’t a plausible position.


  29. Lew 29

    Razorlight: My idea of proportional representation is if you can command 51% support you should have the right to govern. Under MMP this is not the reality.

    Under MMP it almost always is the reality. The overhang plays a small (but potentially critical) amount of merry hell with that, but it’s not yet happened, and may not yet happen. In any case, it’s not an argument for scrapping MMP – it’s an argument for modifying it in order to minimise the overhang.


  30. randal 30

    dont talk sense lew
    otherwise the drongos will have nothing to get aggrieved and hard done by about after they get a kick on saturday
    oh god. i’ve got a ute and go pig hunting but no one understands me
    bwah bwah hah

  31. NeillR 31

    Does Labour use a proportional system for electing its candidates? If not, why not?

  32. Lew 32

    NeillR: That’s an idiotic question. In fact, since the second is predicated on the first, it’s two idiotic questions.

    Proportional voting systems aren’t appropriate in all cases.


  33. randal 33

    you cant argue with an idee fixee

  34. QoT 34

    @bill brown: And it’s been my experience that young voters who have only ever voted MMP are even MORE keen on it when you explain what FPP is – because a depressing number don’t even know the difference.

  35. Vinsin 35

    QoT – i wish you didn’t put that qualifying statement at the end of your sentence, it’s absurb, not at all true, and… for the sake of being incredibly vague and general – like your statement – false.

  36. HS,

    I never knew that I had something to be so proud of in my countries history.
    Thank you for asking which countries had the MMP system in place.

    It seems that the Dutch were the first to have a revolution and told the ruling elite to shove it. Apparently this lead to the English war, the French revolution and ultimately to the American revolution.

    I looked it up again because when I was young it was not so much taught as an actual revolution against the Dutch oligarchs (I wonder why, ooh oops by the time I was born the descendants of the most important revolutionary leader were firmly in power as the new oligarchs) but as a revolt against the Spanish king Phillip who owned the Netherlands at the time. It resulted in an eighty year long war which was declared over in 1648. After which the Netherlands became a republic. In fact it was the first Royalty free republic ever.

    The Dutch have had a MMP system ever since. And it has done us no harm, what with the Dutch golden age coming after that and all.

    The Dutch have had this system for 360 years so I think we can safely say the system works.

    When I watch debates on TV here, I am appalled at the impolite yelling and hawking and the inane one party or the other party rules immaturity.

    When you watch debates on Dutch TV people actually listen to one another and the leaders of the smaller parties are a real part of the political process. They need to be taken serious because you may have to govern with them in the future. This allows for the more extreme views to be heard and taken into consideration.

    If the bigger parties don’t take the entire population into consideration they will suffer because the population will vote for the smaller parties knowing that this really will make a difference.

    Holland as a country has prospered with this system and even if poverty and the industrial revolution left huge swats of the population disenfranchised there was more equality on the whole than in countries such as France, England and Germany and it’s not for nothing that it inspired other countries to revolt.

    Having said that, this system until 1919 did not include the female vote since women were only given the vote in that year whereas NZ as the first western country gave women the vote in 1893.

  37. higherstandard 37

    Indeed Eve

    I was surprised as well. I’ve always enjoyed the Netherlands when visiting or passing through.

    Why though are you here rather than there – both pleasant countries I know but I can’t see the attraction of moving all the way from Holland to NZ just as I’d struggle with why people would want to do the opposite.

  38. HS,

    New Zealanders have absolutely no idea how lucky they are.

    I feel every day like I’ve died and gone to heaven. Silence (In Holland you can never get away from traffic noise, light 24 ours a day, etc) peace, food from my own garden and the most amazingly friendly community and I live in a gobsmackingly beautiful spot with views to die for in a rental (Why buy a house if you know it’ll be loosing value within the next 6 months) surplus to requirement rather than a money making tool for as long as we want for a sum for which you could only have a one room apartment in a grotty suburb in Holland. In Holland you would absolutely not have been able to live on one median income with two people and here we can actually save.

    If I have to go into a town I can’t wait to get back home and I honestly don’t understand how I ever managed to live in a city like Amsterdam. To me Holland is like hell on earth these days.

    No, me and Kiwi hubby are perfectly fine were we are.

  39. HS,

    Wow, we actually had a civil interaction there. LOL

  40. higherstandard 40

    Aye tis nice for a change.

  41. Lew 41

    For those of you who persist on claiming the moral mandate of a plurality, consider these words from the early days of MMP in NZ by (then) Governor-General Sir Michael Hardie Boys, which carry the weight of constitutional precedent:

    “In a parliamentary democracy, the exercise of my powers must always be governed by the question of where the support of the house lies. It is this simple principle which provides the answer to those who sometimes suggest that in situations like that encountered by NZ after the last election, the head of state should simply call on the leader of the largest party to form a government. Size alone provides no reason to prefer a party if its leader does not appear to have the support of the majority of the house. It is better to wait for negotiation amongst the parties to produce a majority.

    (Quoted in http://podcast.radionz.co.nz/ntn/ntn-20081105-1130-Legal_Commentator_-_Dean_Knight.ogg – my emphasis.)

    That’s pretty definitive.


  42. Swampy 42

    “I could go on, but the point is this: the will of the people is what matters in a democracy and when the people have voted for a bloc of parties that can work together and command the confidence of Parliament that bloc is the legitimate government. National would have no moral mandate to govern when a majority of people had voted for parties that oppose, or are expected to oppose, National.”

    Once again, like the Greens in their blog, trying to change the purpose of the voting system.

    People vote FOR a party/candidate. They do not vote AGAINST a party/candidates.

    As we know the government is formed as a result of coalition negotiations after the election. The fact that the National party does not hold an absolute majority of the votes in Parliament does not exclude them from having a mandate to enter or negotiate a coalition agreement.

  43. gobsmacked 43


    Dean Knight – and more importantly, the former Governor-General – have clearly and succinctly addressed the issue, in Lew’s link above.

    Worth listening to. Kills the myth stone dead, once and for all.

  44. Vinsin 44

    “People vote FOR a party/candidate. They do not vote AGAINST a party/candidates.”

    That is absolute bollocks. Ever heard of tactical voting, vote splitting. People vote for country they want, not the party/candidate. They vote for the issues that make sense to them, this is why a typically green voter might party vote labour to strenghten their support or why someone might vote for rodney hide. The fact National doesn’t have an overwhelming majority is besides the point, the problem they have is that they won’t be able to form a coalition with NZF, Green and the Maori party.

  45. Lew 45

    Vinsin: Even a tactical blocking vote is a vote FOR a candidate – not against. Swampy’s quite right in this regard.

    Swampy: Nobody’s arguing National should be enjoined from entering coalition talks – indeed, nobody can legally prevent them doing so. It’s just that the Governor-General must allow the first party leader who has the confidence of the house to govern. There’s no first dibs, no special privileges, no special anything which accrues to the party with the largest plurality. Except maybe bragging rights, which, if they can’t be converted into the confidence of the house, are worse than worthless.

    All else being equal, the party with the largest plurality should be best capable of forming a government. But all things are not equal in this case.


  46. Lew 46

    Peter Dunne ran the same race condition line on NatRad this morning, that National winning a plurality would mean the public had a `reasonable expectation’ that they would govern, and that they should get a headstart in the `race to prove confidence to the G-G. Conveniently ignoring the fact that each member can only vote confidence for ONE person, so by necessity only one coalition can be formed.


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