Making sense of the polls

Making sense of the polls

NZ Labour surges into poll lead; Merkel likely to win German election

Elections in New Zealand and Germany will be held in two weeks, on the weekend of 23-24 September - NZ on 23 September, and Germany on 24 September. Under new leader Jacinda Ardern, NZ Labour has surged into a poll lead. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU is likely to win the German election. Both countries use the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system for their elections.

Under MMP, electors cast votes for both their electorates and their parties. The party vote determines the total number of seats a party is entitled to, while the electorate vote determines the winner of a single member electorate under First Past the Post. In most cases, parties will not fill their seat entitlement using just the electorates, and these parties receive a top-up from a party list.

NZ has 71 electorate seats and 49 list seats for a total of 120 seats. A party must win either 5% of the party vote, or a single member electorate, to qualify for additional seats from the party list. Parties that fail to meet this threshold have their seats distributed among those parties that met the threshold.

In Germany, there are 299 electorate seats and 299 list seats, for a total of 598. A party must either win 5% of the party vote, or three single member electorates, to qualify.

Occasionally, MMP produces “overhang” seats where a party wins more seats than it is entitled to using just the electorates. In this case, additional parliamentary seats are created; NZ currently has an overhang of one (121 total MPs), and Germany an overhang of 33 (631 total MPs). In Germany, other parties must receive compensation for one party’s overhang seats in proportion to the party votes.

Labour surges into NZ poll lead under Ardern

The conservative National has governed NZ since 2008 with support from small right-wing parties. At the 2014 election, National won 47.0%, Labour an abysmal 25.1%, the Greens 10.7% and the anti-immigrant populist NZ First 8.7%. National and two one-seat right-wing parties won 62 of the 121 seats. The 4.0% who voted for the Conservatives had their votes wasted; the right would otherwise have won a bigger majority.

Until the end of July, Labour appeared set for another dismal result, with mid-20’s support in the polls. However on 1 August, Jacinda Ardern replaced Andrew Little as Labour leader. Labour immediately surged into the 30’s, and that surge has continued. There have been two polls conducted this week: one gave Labour a 43-39 lead over National, with NZ First on 9% and the Greens 5%. The other poll gave Labour a difficult-to-believe 45-30 lead over National, with 11% for NZ First and 6% for the Greens.

Labour’s surge is partly due to Ardern, a far more photogenic leader than Little. However, both the anti-establishment right and left has had recent electoral success, with Trump’s US victory, and the June UK election, in which the Conservatives suffered a shock loss of their majority. By embracing a genuinely progressive leader in Ardern, Labour may be attracting anti-establishment support.

If there is a “Trump factor” in NZ, NZ First is likely to underperform current polls, and Labour and the Greens are likely to overperform. In the French, UK and the WA state elections, parties associated with Trump have underperformed, and left-wing parties have overperformed. If NZ First wins less than 5%, they are unlikely to re-enter Parliament, as they won no electorate seats in 2014, though leader Winston Peters won a by-election in 2015.

On current polling, it is likely that Labour will form the next NZ government. A key question is whether the Greens win more than the 5% needed to enter Parliament without an electorate seat. While NZ First is anti-immigrant, they are more centrist than One Nation or Trump on economic policy, and Labour governed with their support from 2005-08.

Merkel’s CDU likely to win German election

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) have governed Germany since 2005. From 2005-09 and 2013-17, the CDU formed a “grand coalition” with their main opponents, the Social Democrats (SPD). At the 2013 election, the CDU won 41.5%, the SPD 25.7%, the ex-Communist Left 8.6% and the Greens 8.4%. The CDU won 311 of the 631 seats, just short of a majority. Although left parties had a narrow overall majority, the SPD preferred to form a coalition with the CDU, rather than the Left.

Two small right-wing parties, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), narrowly missed the 5% threshold, and failed to win any seats. Had either the FDP or AfD qualified, there would have been a clear centre-right parliamentary majority.

German polls currently have the CDU in the high 30’s, the SPD in the low 20’s, and the Left, Greens, FDP and AfD clustered between 7 and 11%.

The FDP and CDU are natural coalition partners, and their combined support in the polls is between 43 and 49%. If these two parties win a combined majority of the seats, they would be likely to form a coalition government.

Since the SPD is unlikely to form an alliance with the Left, or the CDU with the AfD, and the CDU is well ahead of the SPD, it is likely that another grand coalition would be formed if the CDU and FDP do not win a majority of seats, with Merkel retaining the Chancellorship.

Unlike other conservative leaders, Merkel has strongly condemned Trump, and this has gained her plaudits from the global left, probably mitigating any “Trump factor” backlash. As they are currently in coalition with Merkel, the SPD has found it difficult to distance itself from Merkel’s policies. In March 2017, Martin Schulz became the SPD leader, and the party surged into a near tie with the CDU, but that period did not last.

The established parties appear to be close, and this could push alienated voters into opting for the two most anti-establishment parties, the Left and AfD.

Where centre-left parties have formed coalitions with centre-right parties, the next elections have recently been disasters for the centre-left party, and the SPD is likely to win a reduced vote share from 2013’s poor 25.7%. Centre-left parties that distance themselves from conservatives have performed much better.