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Kiwis reject 'first past post' voting

NEW Zealanders voted overwhelmingly yesterday to abandon the Westminster system of electing their members of parliament in favour of proportional representation. Despite the 84.5 per cent vote for change, however, the referendum was only an 'indicative' test of opinion, and they must vote again next year to confirm their choice. Until the 1996 general election, new procedures cannot be put in place to end more than 140 years of the 'first past the post' system that New Zealand inherited from Britain.

Voters who, according to opinion polls, were totally confused about the four alternative electoral systems on offer, cleared their heads in the last few days, and strongly endorsed the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system used in Germany since the late 1940s.

More than 70 per cent chose MMP over other systems used in Australia, Hungary and South Korea. In next year's referendum, MMP will be the only option on offer against 'first past the post', which gets another chance.

The result was a heavy slap in the face for the National and Labour parties, which have dominated parliament since 1935. Although ostensibly neutral, their leaders opposed reform as likely to produce unstable governments. Minority parties, which see PR as a way of winning more seats and a role in coalition governments, hailed it as a victory for democracy. The Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, said he would fight to retain the status quo, but conceded that a different result was unlikely in next year's referendum (to be held at the same time as the general election, due in October). He said another ballot on introducing an upper house to the unicameral parliament would be held simultaneously.

The result reflected more than dissatisfaction with the electoral system. After eight years of painful economic restructuring, voters are disenchanted with their politicians and sick of broken promises by successive governments. 'I'm sure that's partly why there was such a strong vote for change,' Mr Bolger said.

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Mike Moore, said that coalition governments were inevitable from 1996.

The turnout of 48 per cent was low compared with general elections, when more than 80 per cent of voters go to the polls. Although not all Maori votes had been counted, there were signs that many had heeded calls for a boycott in protest at their under-representation in parliament. Details of how the MMP system will operate, including the fate of the four seats guaranteed for Maoris since 1867 and the number of MPs in the new parliament, still have to be worked out.