(MENAFN – The Conversation) Winston Peters has long been described as a populist, both in New Zealand and internationally. At different times during his career, he has embraced the label.
As he said recently, populism to him ‘means you talk to ordinary people and you place their gaze a lot higher than the belt line and the paparazzi’.
Yet in much of the world, political analysts and commentators see the politics of populism as a threat. Parties that are described as populist are often associated with radical rights, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and rejection of pluralism and diversity.
While Peters and New Zealand First have occasionally leaned in that direction, it has been inconsistent and disjointed. The party has maintained a large number of Māori among its MPs, members and constituencies – including, of course, Peters himself.
However, at this point of the election campaign, New Zealand First’s problem is not populism but popularity. Opinion polls show his support is well below the 5% needed to remain in parliament. Where did the voters go?
Two populisms: Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters shaking hands during the signing of the coalition agreement after the 2017 election. GettyImages Left populism
In our recently released book on the 2017 New Zealand elections, based on data from the New Zealand Election Study (NZES), we argue that populism has another side: in its origins as a social movement, populism is from the left, not from the Well.
James Carroll, NZ’s first Māori deputy (and two-time) prime minister. National Library of New Zealand, CC BY-NC
Those who initially called themselves populists sought to mobilize and unite the vast majority of people to challenge the excessive economic and political power of a narrow elite. This form of democratic populism emerged in New Zealand in a wave of reforms that, by the 1890s, had made the young country one of the world’s first fully fledged representative democracies.
Populism flourished under Liberal rule in the early 20th century, personified by prime minister Richard Seddon (‘King Dick’). His government championed the interests of the working class and small peasants by encouraging trade unions and dissolving large estates controlled by the colonial rich.
Liberals have been less successful in defending Māori interests. But New Zealand’s first Māori deputy prime minister and occasional acting prime minister was Liberal MP James Carroll (Ngāti Kahungunu) – not Winston Peters.
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Inclusion versus exclusion
We define populism in two senses: first, as a set of democratic norms that take the idea of ’people’s sovereignty’ seriously; second, as rhetoric using populist language to attract support, but not necessarily for populist purposes.
We also argue that it is necessary to distinguish between authoritarian or exclusive populism, which seeks to divide people by ethnicity or national origin, and inclusive populism, which seeks to build a majority on the basis of what most members of society have in common.
We found that in 2017 New Zealand’s populists were largely on the left, with few expressing authoritarian views. For the minority of voters who express a preference for populism and authoritarianism, their party of choice tends to be New Zealand First – the party that in 2017 won more than 7% of the vote and now casts 2% or less.
So does dropping support for New Zealand First in 2020 represent a shift in populist sentiment?
Where did authoritarian populists go?
The New Zealand First brand of populism over the past three years has shifted between exclusive and inclusive. In the 2017 election campaign, the party’s rhetoric did take shape, with a focus on reducing immigration and a desire to give more votes to the regions.
NZES data shows a majority of New Zealand’s First voters want the party to form a coalition with National, but a sizeable minority also wants to see political change. Indeed, the policies of the New Zealand First campaign in 2017 closely aligned with the Labor Party, with a few exceptions: water quality and climate change mitigation being the two most clearly incompatible.
Our study shows that in 2017 New Zealand First attracted an older, Pākehā, male, low-income voter who lived outside the major cities.
Read more: Stardust and substance: Election of New Zealand becomes the ‘third referendum’ on the leadership of Jacinda Ardern
Ultimately, New Zealand First entered government with the Labor Party, led by Jacinda Ardern, a relatively young woman whose rhetoric, feminism and policy orientation aligned with a more inclusive version of populism. It challenged some New Zealand First voters but won over others.
Recently, the issue of immigration has disappeared from the political agenda, wiping out New Zealand’s main populist board. Peters has championed various versions of the reopening of borders over the past three months, suggesting he may be an internationalist, at least when the economy is at stake.
It’s too early to tell where a fraction of New Zealand’s authoritarian populists have gone. Are they about the 2% who remain committed to New Zealand First? Or has National Party leader Judith Collins’ aggressive labeling of Labor as anti-farmer and anti-aspirational gaining traction?
Or is it the determination that the Labor Party closes borders to reach an agreement with the New Zealand First authorities? Some recent poll analysis suggests that a large part of the 2017 New Zealand First Voting did shift to the Labor Party.
National Party Leader Judith Collins: Is his aggressive campaign driving authoritarian populist voters away from New Zealand First? AAP The rise of moderate populism
Our analysis of the 2017 election reveals the rhetoric of Ardern’s inclusion campaign to be very interesting. Voters find him likable, competent and trustworthy. He also struck with the onset of COVID-19. His phrase ‘team of 5 million’ clearly evokes a populist ethos.
Trust in Ardern’s leadership, despite our centralistic political institutions, remains high. At the same time, satisfaction with our political process has not decreased as in other democracies, making a surge in authoritarian populism less likely.
Read more: With opinion polls showing the Labor Party can govern itself, is New Zealand returning to a period of ‘elected dictatorship’?
Those who fear and lament populism tend to see only the dark side of the phenomenon and often ignore the idea that ‘the people’ represent anything other than a threat. Hence, liberal democratic critics of populism admire or crave constitutional checks to protect governments from public opinion.
While we recognize that the protection of human rights requires some limitation on the majority, our analysis of contemporary New Zealand politics shows that the best antidote to authoritarian populism is an inclusive, democratic form of moderate populism.
Certainly Ardern’s version of moderate populism has proven popular. With immigration not the focus of this election, New Zealand First’s call for authoritarian populist voters appears to have disappeared. To find out where these voters are going next, we need to wait for the results of the 2020 New Zealand Election Study.