The future of New Zealand’s new government has been put in the hands of Winston Peters, a cantankerous, anti-immigration politician who prefers fishing to politics, after vote counting finished in the general election. Neither of the major parties – National, led by the incumbent prime minister, Bill English, or Jacinda Ardern’s Labour – secured enough seats to form a majority government in a frustrating poll on Saturday. National secured 46% of the vote, giving it 58 seats in parliament, while Labour took home 35.8% and 45 seats. Both parties were scrambling to form coalitions with the minor parties in order to reach 61 seats and the ability to govern in the 120-seat parliament. Peters, the unpredictable leader of the populist New Zealand First party, became kingmaker after gaining 7.5% of the vote and nine seats, although not his own seat of Northland. The 72-year-old lawyer made a teasing statement to the media about his intentions before rushing to board the last ferry home on Saturday night.
“As it stands I believe we hold the balance of responsibility and we are not going to be hasty with that and we are not going to rush out and make a decision tonight,” said Peters, speaking from the pub in Russell where he held his election party, hundreds of kilometres north of Auckland, where the major parties were staging their events.
“I will not make a decision tonight or tomorrow until I have talked to all of New Zealand First … that will take us some time.We invite you to be patient: don’t ask us who we are going to go with.”
In their own election night speeches, English and Ardern immediately started courting Peters, with the latter making explicit references to Labour policies that would appeal to Peters, such as pulling more New Zealanders out of poverty. Labour has already pledged to cut immigration by up to 30,000 if it forms the next government.