Systemic Failure, Coordination, and Contingencies: Understanding Electoral System Change in New Zealand

Jack Vowles

in To Keep or To Change First Past The Post?

Published in print May 2008 | ISBN: 9780199539390
Published online September 2008 | e-ISBN: 9780191715761 | DOI:
Systemic Failure, Coordination, and Contingencies: Understanding Electoral System Change in New Zealand

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There are two interpretations of electoral system change in New Zealand; one, that it was a result of social and political changes generating a ‘systemic failure’ of the former single-member-plurality (SMP) electoral system, and thus expressing the intentions of key actors: a combination of evolution and design. The alternative interpretation assumes the process to have been contingent or even accidental. In determinist mode, this chapter argues that as a necessary but not sufficient condition ‘systemic failure’ set the agenda. In addition, failure went beyond the electoral system that was only one element of New Zealand's highly majoritarian institutional arrangements. In the electoral arena, multi-party politics had generated a partisan bias that parties and electors could not correct adequately by coordination. With necessary conditions set, actors' intentions combined with various contingencies provide sufficient explanations for change. Unintentional or accidental events may have accelerated the process and shaped how it happened. But pressure for change ran deep, and in alternative counterfactual scenarios other contingencies could have tipped the balance. Indeed, a probabilistic rather than deterministic explanation may better fit the process. Rational choice theories of party interests explain part of the change. But perceptions of the need to enhance the normative performance of New Zealand democracy by reducing its majoritarian elements were, if anything, more important, bringing ‘systemic failure’ into the picture as a justification for change beyond its initial agenda-setting role.

Keywords: New Zealand; SMP; MMP; electoral system change; coordination; rational choice; public opinion; referendum; electoral bias; constitution; Westminster system

Chapter.  7903 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Comparative Politics

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