New Zealand was originally settled by Maori voyagers from Polynesia in the ninth century. The first European to sight it was the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. In 1769, Captain James Cook claimed it for the British. New Zealand did not become a formal colony until 1841. It retained this colonial status until 1907 when it was made an independent member of the British Commonwealth.
New Zealand was one of the first countries to introduce universal adult suffrage and establish a welfare state. Beginning in 1898, the state passed laws guaranteeing old-age pensions and regulating labor practices. In the 1930s, a comprehensive social security system was introduced, which eventually guaranteed medical care to all New Zealanders. The success of the European settlers was not originally shared by the indigenous population. In 1840, a treaty guaranteed the Maoris possession of their land, but a series of wars forced them to make room for expanding British settlements. These military defeats, along with the proliferation of new diseases from Europe, reduced the Maori population to 40,000 by the turn of the century. It is only in the 20th century that they have recovered and become a strong political force, electing several members of Parliament.
New Zealand continues to maintain its status as an independent democratic state within the British Commonwealth. Organized as a constitutional monarchy, the formal head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, who is represented by an appointed governor-general. Dame Silvia Cartwright became New Zealand's governor-general since April 2001. Real political power, however, rests with the Parliament, which consists of a single body—the House of Representatives. The House has 120 members who are elected for three-year terms. Every citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. Executive authority is held by the prime minister; based on legislative elections, the leader of the majority party or the leader of the majority coalition is usually appointed prime minister for a three-year term. The deputy prime minister is appointed by the governor general.
In 1996, a new electoral system, called multi-member proportional (MP) representation, was introduced. Voters are asked to cast two ballots: one for a candidate to represent a particular constituency; the other for a political party. Any party receiving more than 5% of the vote is entitled to representation in Parliament even if none of its members won a single district. The effect is to ensure proportional representation. The party or coalition of parties that controls the House forms the government. From November 1996 until November 1999, the National Party led a majority coalition with a nationalist party called New Zealand First, led by Winston Peters. The major opposition party during that period was the Labor Party led by Helen Clark. Following the 1999 elections, the Labor Party formed the majority government, with Helen Clark as prime minister.