With polls showing Winston Peters (well New Zealand First, but let's be honest, Winston calls all the shots) will hold the balance of power after the election, trying to predict which way he'll jump has become a national sport for political commentators. I've been thinking a lot about this question over the past week, and I've come to conclusion that Winston Peters will pick Labour as a coalition partner, supported by the Greens in a confidence and supply agreement, over National.
Back in 1996 pundits guessed Peters would go with Labour, rather than National, as that was where much of his support from the Māori seats had come from. Instead Peters surprised everyone and opted to support National's third term. This decision would almost prove disastrous for New Zealand First, as in 1998 the party split in two and in 1999 it's party vote collapsed to 4.26% (having hit 13.35% in 1996), only being saved by Winston Peters winning Tauranga by a extremely narrow margin of 63 votes.
Again in 2005 Winston Peters surprised people by going with Labour over National or sitting on the cross-benches bartering with whoever formed the minority government. National was considered a likely fit largely because many thought New Zealand First's policy platform was relatively similar to that promoted by then National Party leader Don Brash. The cross-benches approach was also one Winston Peters himself had promoted in a speech in the lead-up to the election, saying he wasn't interested in the baubles of office.
However once again in 2008 New Zealand First's support collapses after the party was caught up in two scandals during Helen Clark's Labour government's third term. Having polled at 5.7% in 2005 and Winston Peters narrowly losing Tauranga, in 2008 they fell to 4.07% and Peters was trounced with National's Simon Bridges winning twice as many votes as him in Tauranga.
This is the crux of why I think Winston Peters will, if he holds the balance of power, pick Labour over National. Twice he's supported a third term government and both times it's nearly spelled the end of New Zealand First. At 72, Peters will know that he's eventually going to have to hand over the reigns of the party to a successor, and he'll want that person to enjoy electoral success as one last middle fingered salute to all the nay-sayers (like me) who say that New Zealand First is a personality party based solely around him.
Having twice been nearly annihilated at the ballot box by supporting third term governments and getting caught up in a mood for change, Peters will be eager to avoid that happening again by and so won't support a fourth term National-led government.
Instead, much like in 1996 where it was suggested by Michael Laws that Peters was always going to support National and used the threat of going with Labour as a way to get more policy and ministerial concessions out of National, Peters will use that same threat as a way to get concessions out of Labour. He'll also doubly know that a first term Labour-led government is less likely to do damage to the long term electoral prospects of New Zealand First following his eventual departure, as first term governments generally play it relatively safe with the policies they implement.
The real trick for National is, if it finds itself in this position after the election, to ensure that the price that Peters extracts from Labour is such that it undermines the credibility of both Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern, and the Labour Party.
Top photo credit: European Union Centres Network 2008, used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WinstonPetersEuropa.jpg