Winston Peters, New Zealand’s Political Comeback Kid, Does It Again

One thing’s certain in New Zealand politics — you can never discount Winston Peters.

(Bloomberg) — One thing’s certain in New Zealand politics — you can never discount Winston Peters.

The 78-year-old populist has done it again, leading his New Zealand First Party back into parliament in Saturday’s election with 6.5% of the vote and eight lawmakers. It’s the third time in his 44-year career that Peters has returned from the political wilderness.

“There’s just such an angry vote out in the electorate at the moment, it was perfect for him,” said Bryce Edwards, a political analyst at Victoria University of Wellington. “The big story of this election campaign really is a discontent with the status quo. New Zealand First absolutely have been able to pick up on that.”

Not only has Peters resurrected New Zealand First’s fortunes after it was ousted from parliament at the 2020 election, the party may also be part of the next government. While National Party leader Christopher Luxon and his ally, the libertarian ACT Party, currently have a majority between them, they may lose it when official results, which include special and overseas votes, are published on Nov. 3. That would see Peters holding the balance of power.

It’s a situation that Peters, a qualified lawyer, revels in. The wily politician is a skilled negotiator who has been in the position of kingmaker on three previous occasions. 

If he’s needed, he’s likely to extract policy concessions and ministerial posts in return for backing the new, center-right administration.

After the 1996 election, Peters was appointed deputy prime minister and treasurer – a new role created especially for him — in return for supporting National.

In 2005 he was made foreign minister after anointing Labour and in 2017, in return for making Labour’s Jacinda Ardern prime minister, he took the role as her deputy as well as regaining the foreign affairs portfolio.  

Trumpian Rhetoric

The closest thing New Zealand has to Donald Trump, Peters has built his support with nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric that has seen him accused of dog-whistle politics. 

Of Māori descent, Peters is outspoken in his opposition to the use of the Māori language by government departments and calling New Zealand by its Māori name, Aotearoa, saying such moves are “separatist.”

“Today we see a nation divided by race, with the government and other political parties focusing on virtue signaling and politically correct extremism,” New Zealand First says on its website.

But by championing the elderly and delivering witty barbs with a broad grin, he has also endeared himself to voters across the political spectrum.

Peters first entered parliament in 1979 as a National Party lawmaker. He lost his seat at the 1981 election, but returned three years later for the first of his comebacks.

Peters formed New Zealand First in 1993, two years after being sacked from cabinet by then Prime Minister Jim Bolger for criticizing government policies.  

New Zealand’s switch to a proportional representation electoral system in 1996 played into Peters’ hands, giving smaller players a better chance of getting more seats in parliament.  

Parties no longer needed to win electorates. Now seats were apportioned according to the share of the popular vote as long as it was more than 5%.  

‘Take Back Our Country’

New Zealand First was ejected from parliament at the 2008 election after falling below the 5% threshold, but returned once again in 2011.

Peters is an opposition politician by nature. He rails against those in power and likes to remind voters how good New Zealand’s way of life was in the past. His slogan for this year’s election was “Let’s Take Back Our Country.”

But when in government, Peters tends to act as a conservative brake on his larger partner rather than an agent for change.

Aged 75 when he exited parliament at the 2020 election, many political obituaries were written about Peters. This year he framed his age and lengthy career as an asset.

In New Zealand First’s campaign video, Peters, sporting a cowboy hat, nimbly climbs onto a horse.

“To govern a country you need experience,” he says with his trademark grin. “And this is not our first rodeo.” 

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