Mixed Fortunes for Conservatives in Weekend Cliffhanger Elections

By Patrick Goodenough
Published September 19th 2005 in Cybercast News Service
Weekend elections in two Western democracies ended with results so close that they will undergo a period of political limbo before a final outcome becomes clear.

In both Germany and New Zealand, the parties that were narrowly beaten have refused to concede defeat.

The two countries' campaigns dealt largely with economic and other domestic issues rather than foreign policy. In each case, however, conservative challengers signaled warmer relations with the United States than those overseen by the liberal incumbents, both of whom opposed the war in Iraq.

In Germany's case, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SDP) were edged out by conservative Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), who did less well than opinion polls had predicted but nonetheless took 35 percent of votes to the SDP's 34, according to preliminary results.

Despite failing to win a ruling majority, Merkel told supporters she would negotiate with other parties in a bid to build a stable coalition.

Schroeder, however, claims that he has a mandate to form the next government.

The result prompted analysts to predict that the likeliest solution may be a "grand coalition" between the two major parties, with Merkel taking the post of Germany's first woman chancellor but then facing the unenviable job of overseeing an unwieldy government hampered by gridlock.

The Christian Democrats and Social Democrats both were hurt by minor parties which fared well under Germany's mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system, a form of proportional representation which tends to favor small parties and led to coalition governments.

The pro-business Free Democratic Party (a likely CDU ally) won 10 percent, the Greens (SDP partners in the previous government) took 8.2 percent, and a new left-wing faction received about 8.5 percent.

Coincidentally, New Zealand also uses the MMP system, which it adopted from Germany. In New Zealand's case, however, Saturday's election went against the trend and saw the major two parties boosted at the expense of the minor ones.

The opposition National Party led by former reserve bank head Don Brash came within 1.1 percent of unseating Prime Minister Helen Clark's Labor.

Out of 122 seats in the new parliament, Labor is set to take 50, National 49, and six minor parties a total of 23 seats between them.

It was a big jump for National, which only won 27 seats in the last parliament, and Brash has refused to concede defeat, although he acknowledged Monday that Labor had a "slightly better chance than we do" of cobbling together a government.

Special votes - those cast overseas, in hospitals etc. - will be counted over the next fortnight.

While they could theoretically reverse the final result, this is thought unlikely, and conservatives are bracing for another three years of a Labor-led coalition - possibly further to the left than before, if the Greens are wooed into government this time.

Like Germany, New Zealand will now go through a period of intense political bargaining as small parties flex their muscles and make policy demands in exchange for providing crucial support for a government-in-the-making.