Understanding the Aftermath of New Zealand’s 2023 Election (2/2)

Jon Bell
6 min readNov 4, 2023

Wow! A lot of interesting things happened in the New Zealand election three weeks ago, and there are some similarities to US politics that will be fun to dive into. If you didn’t read part one, you should start there because I wrote it before election day.

The top-line summary

The main party on the left (Labour, which are like Democrats) was in power, and the main party on the right (National, which are like Republicans) won on election night. But it wasn’t a decisive victory, which is causing all sorts of drama. Let’s dive in!

Source: RNZ.co.nz (which is like New Zealand’s NPR or BBC)

Rating my predictions

The left was showing a surge in the final week of the campaign, so I figured they’d do better than expected. I wasn’t alone in this sort of prediction, which is why election night was such a shock for the left and such a joy for the right. Here’s how the seats looked on election night:

National: 50 (5 more than I predicted)
Labour: 34 (2 fewer)

On election night, it looked like a massacre. National did better than expected and appeared to have a mandate, and Labour did far worse and appeared to have face-planted. There were a lot of long faces on the left that night. But people started running the numbers, and something didn’t look quite right…

The “red mirage” effect

In US politics, it’s common for the Republicans to do well earlier in the voting (red), but as mail-in ballots are counted, the Democratic votes (blue) often outnumber them. This leads to something we call the “red mirage,” where early numbers are misleading and over-estimate the right.

That’s what happened in New Zealand. National shot up to 41% in the early numbers, which exceeded expectations. But as the night wore on, their numbers settled back down to 38%. Those three points were enough to doom them. They still won, but on very different terms than they were hoping for.

The misleading “mirror image” narrative

Early in the night, when National was riding high, most pundits and online commentators were saying the election was a “mirror image” of what happened in our previous election, 2020. But it takes some pretty tortured logic to describe it that way:

2020: Labour (Democrats) got 50.01% of the popular vote, an all-time record since 1993, when New Zealand moved to this form of voting. It was such a dominant number that they didn’t even need a coalition partner to govern, which has never happened.

2023: National (Republicans) got ~38% of the popular vote, a middling number that meant they’d need to partner with an alt-right party to even come close to governing. And there was a real chance they’d also need to partner with a third party called New Zealand First, an extremist anti-immigrant party that National openly despises.

This is like comparing Usain Bolt to three kids in a trenchcoat. There may be similarities, but one wins decisively and the other can barely stand up without toppling over. Mirror image, my ass.

Three weeks to count the remaining (left-leaning) votes

New Zealand has a slow process for counting their remaining votes, because a huge proportion of the votes come in after election day. The trouble for National is that these votes are generally understood to be left-leaning, and if they lost even a little support they’d have to partner with New Zealand First. And they desperately did not want that.

Watch this clip of Luxon on election night. When he says he’ll be able to lead with a party called ACT, what he’s really saying is “yay, we performed well enough to not need to partner with New Zealand First!”

And that’s why this gets him the biggest applause line of the night. Working with New Zealand First would lead to what New Zealanders are referring to a “coalition of chaos,” sort of like making a deal with Matt Gaetz or Rand Paul. Sort of like being Kevin McCarthy, a position no one wants.

But a funny thing happened when the remaining votes came in…

Christopher Luxon Just Became Kevin McCarthy

The remaining votes swung left, so National didn’t just lose a single seat, which would have been a disaster for them, they ended up losing two. This means even with New Zealand First rounding out the “Coalition of Chaos,” the coalition only has a one seat margin of error. This is even worse than Kevin McCarthy or Mike Johnson in the US. It means that every single MP (aka congressperson) has the ability to stymie everything because they all need to vote together to proceed. That’s gonna be tough.

But to be clear, the differences between parties in New Zealand versus America is hardly comparable. In America, a group of hardliners literally are trying to shut down the government. In New Zealand, they just have policy differences. So as tough as it will be, it’s not as existential of a threat.

Did the country swing right? Not really

When you have two major parties, politics is zero-sum, which makes it closer to a sport. When the Celtics win, the Lakers lose. When the Democrats win, the Republicans lose. It’s an easy mental model. But New Zealand has a coalition model, so it’s harder to work out the math to understand “right” and “left.” While it’s true that the right won this election, there’s a lot of nuance in the details.

In 2020, Labour gained 19 seats and National lost 23. In 2023, Labour lost 31 and National gained just 15. Where did the other votes go? Why couldn’t National even get half of the spoils from Labour’s column? Because the votes didn’t all go to the right. They actually went across the political spectrum, which dents the mandate National hoped for.

On the left, The Greens and Te Pāti Māori grabbed 9 new seats between them, both hitting all-time highs for their party. On the right, ACT and New Zealand First combined for 9 as well, but NZF is well below their all-time high, and ACT hit a new record by only adding a single seat. The reason National only took half of Labour’s seats is because a lot of Labour voters went further left than ever before. That’s fascinating.

That doesn’t take anything from National’s strong performance. They still grabbed 15 seats, so people definitely wanted change. But “change” wasn’t neatly defined this time around. More people than ever voted for far-left change, and a fair few (but not a record-breaking number) voted for far-right change. Meanwhile, National is content with their 48 seats, well off their all-time high of 60 seats, or the 65 Labour had 3 years ago.

Think McCarthy, not Pelosi.

What now?

Now three men with big, fragile egos, and some incompatible ideas for how to lead New Zealand, will have to get into a room and work out a deal. I have no doubt they will, and I think it’s healthy that people will have to compromise to find common ground. There are a few items where the parties are fully incompatible, but many more where they are in total agreement.

It’s too bad that the policy agreements they share happen to be things where I think they are 100% batshit crazy, but oh well. That’s democracy for you. Now it’s up to them to sell a public on their ideas, while working around the stark reality that no government since 1993 has had as fragile a mandate as them. Best of luck, mates! See you in three years!

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Jon Bell

Designer, writer, teacher. I love building things.