Kingmaker no more: Winston Peters consigned to NZ political history | World news
He was the consummate survivor of New Zealand politics; an irascible, populist maverick who at times handpicked who would lead the country. Winston Peters, the leader of the minor New Zealand First party, was at the centre of many political maelstroms of the past few decades – and famously, in 2017, propelled Jacinda Ardern to lead the country.
Year after year, he defied polls that suggested he would be consigned to political history, instead being part of four governments during his time in power. But in Saturday’s election, Peters failed to rate with voters and will leave parliament, along with the party he founded.
With 90% of the vote counted, New Zealand First won 2.6%, well short of the 5% threshold needed for a party to enter parliament, unless an MP from that party wins a constituent seat. Peters’ party did not. It was an undignified end for a party that had held nine seats in parliament and the balance of power in Ardern’s coalition government.
“We should never stop trusting the people, who we are privileged to serve in whatever capacity and for however long,” Peters said at an election night event in the Bay of Islands.
During the last term, Peters, 75, was the deputy prime minister and foreign minister, roles he gained in coalition negotiations with Ardern 2017. After that election, when neither of the major parties, Labour or National, had enough seats to govern alone, both groups wooed him for weeks as he sought to secure as many policy concessions as possible.
In the end, he picked Labour – which had won fewer seats – over centre-right National, which had been in power for nine years.
“Capitalism must regain its responsible, its human face,” Peters said at the time. “That perception has influenced our negotiations.”
Now it seems unlikely that the former lawyer, who entered parliament in 1979 as a National party politician, will ever again hold the nation in his thrall while he decides who will lead.
His result on Saturday, down from 7.2% of the vote in 2017, suggested the help he received in his campaign from the pro-Brexit campaigners Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore did not result in the surge of populist support the men had expected.
Before the election the New Zealand First leader and the “bad boys of Brexit” – Banks and Wigmore were two of the chief architects of the Leave.EU campaign for the UK to leave the European Union – were coy about the pair’s role and whether they were being paid by Peters (they said they had not funded his campaign).
But the duo told the media outlet Newshub that they planned to sow “mayhem” in New Zealand’s vote by delivering “Winston on steroids” to the public. Neither the mayhem nor a pumped-up Peters ever arrived.
“If there was any real impact on his campaign, apart from slightly gaudier social media and a bit of sort of corny exaggerated combativeness in his online presence, then it certainly wasn’t apparent to me,” said Ben Thomas, a public relations consultant and former National government staffer.
“Brexit was an anti-establishment movement and Peters is the deputy prime minister,” he said.
Commentators had been wary of sounding the death knell for Peters’ party because he had subverted poor polling results before, and has an elephant’s memory for those who speak ill of him.
But Thomas said Peters, as the leader of an oppositional party seen by many as a mainstream protest vote, would not have appealed to voters so much after his time in power.
“What’s really hampered him as an outspoken, rebellious figure is that that’s a much harder story to tell when you’re in government,” he said. “Any criticism of the current regime will always sound a bit hollow.”
Peters’ campaign was not helped by the fact that his party’s fundraising foundation was until recently being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.
Two people, whose names are suppressed, have been charged as a result. The SFO said in September that they were not cabinet ministers, sitting MPs, election candidates or current members of New Zealand First. But Peters was furious about the timing.
The eccentric politician – rich-voiced and finely tailored – has had only two breaks from his time in office since 1979, advancing New Zealand First on a platform of curbing immigration, benefits for pensioners, and exhortations to “common sense”.
Notoriously pugnacious, he has held news conferences that are part of New Zealand political folklore. And he embraced the label of populist.
“Populism means that you’re talking to the ordinary people and you’re placing their views far higher than the beltway and the paparazzi, or dare I say, the bureaucracy,” Peters told the Guardian in an August interview.
On Saturday night, the man who could easily give 45-minute news conferences was brief and dignified in offering his “sincere gratitude” to the party faithful – and then he was gone.