How people elect parliaments
Finally, after 70 days of negotiations, the Irish have a government. But only just.
The Irish parliament – Dáil Éireann – is elected by the very representative single transferable vote method. With electoral divisions choosing between 3 and 5 members, most voters are effectively represented.
In the recent March 2016 elections, over 89% of participating Irish voters won representation in the Dáil through either the party or the specific individual independent that they most preferred.
However the elections saw a major uprising against the sitting government, and left the nation with a difficult political challenge in forming a new administration.
The former governing coalition of Fine Gael and Labour lost heavily, with Fine Gael falling from 76 seats to 50, and Labour from 37 seats to just 7.
The main opposition Fianna Fáil party rose from 20 seats to 44, while the politically ‘untouchable’ Sinn Féin party rose from 14 seats to 23.
The Dáil’s progressive corner of Greens and left-wing parties rose from 4 seats to 11, while the vibrant independent cross-bench rose from 15 seats to 23.
In the 158-seat chamber a government requires a majority of 79 votes to be secure in office. The Dáil conventionally clarifies the choice of government with a vote to test support at the beginning of each term. But after the 2016 election no party – or realistic combination of parties – came close to the majority target.
The new Dáil in session, trying to form a government (image: Irish Examiner)
The former governing coalition of Fine Gael and Labour, unable to provide a majority, promptly split. Sinn Féin was considered an unacceptable governing partner by both the major parties.
For some weeks many in the press and the business community urged the two largest parties to put aside their differences and form the only possible two-party government. Fine Gael actively pursued that outcome, but after tentative conversations it became obvious that the differences were too great, and Fianna Fáil had no reason to sour its newly recovering voter support with such a deal.
The parties began jostling to look least to blame if the nation had to go back to a second election.
But after multiple votes on the issue, on May 8 the parliament has finally managed to confirm a ‘minor-minority’ government – with confidence on the floor of parliament only made possible by a large wedge of the assembly abstaining from voting altogether.
The final result is highly awkward. Fianna Fáil made known that they would allow Fine Gael to govern in minority by abstaining from the key votes of confidence, for an initial period of 30 months – half the term of the parliament. This offer reduced the necessary governing majority to around 58 votes.
Sinn Féin and most of the progressive left declared they would oppose the proposed minority government, although the two Greens members announced that they would also be abstaining. Fine Gael Leader and Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny was left negotiating a series of side-deals with individual independents from the 23 on the cross-bench.
Kenny needed at least 6 independents to be sure of winning the vote, but he set a target of 8 or 9 to achieve a credible lead. In the event he won 9 of the independents, with 10 voting against his government and 4 more abstentions.
Three independents will join 12 Fine Gael members in the 15-member governing cabinet, making Éire one of the few nations to accept independents into a government.
The outcome plays havoc with the usual language of politics. Fianna Fáil will be the official Opposition even though they specifically did not oppose the formation of the government, while those parties which did actively oppose the formation of the government will not be part of the official opposition.
The result is three factions behind each of the government, the quasi-accomodating official opposition, and the actively negative cross-bench, with fluid individual independents sitting amidst all three positions.
The situation will create ongoing confusion regarding who is politically responsible for the government holding office.
More importantly, the underlying electoral mandate of the second Kenny Government is far from satisfactory.
Based on the votes cast to elect the sitting members of the Dáil, the new administration represents just 19.1% of the enrolled electorate of 3.3 million Irish citizens, while those who opposed it represent 19.9%. The abstainers represent 18.7%.
Kenny’s government can claim the backing of the 549,000 voters who supported his party as well as independents backed by another 80,000 voters – a total of 629,000 votes. His opponents can collectively claim a larger total of 658,000 voters. The abstainers were backed by 616,000 voters.
Shades of green: measures of voter support for the factions in the Dáil who voted on the formation of the new Irish government on May 8.
By far the largest wedge of the Irish electorate is the 35% – 1.2 million citizens – who did not even turn out to vote.
On that basis, over 60% of the electorate did not even exercise a say in whether Kenny’s government should hold office or not.
And of those who did so, more opposed his administration than supported it.
Minority governments are not uncommon in parliaments, but a mere 19% community support is a poor basis for taking difficult political and fiscal decisions during the five-year term of the 32nd Dáil.
The new Irish Government could fall simply by a few independents falling out with the administration.
Or, or course, it could fall through Fianna Fáil judging that political circumstances allow it to change its position and form new alliances.
Ahoy-hoy. Three matters. One relevant, one tangential, one total pedantry.
I reckon your statement that “over 60% of the electorate did not even exercise a say in whether Kenny’s government should hold office or not.” is incorrect, or at the very least a highly debatable reading of a situation which is open to a number of other interpretations.
Where to begin – for a start I think the statement reveals a misreading of how representative democracy works: voting systems are not simply engines for translating the will of the people into governments. The underlying assumption behind your whole oeuvre (if I can be so bold) is that electoral systems should strive continually towards some platonic ideal of total alignment between the will of the people and numbers of representatives, based around some nebulous concept of “say” in government. I think this is highly debatable, at best. Matters for another day, but I think you are trying to graft emerging democratic theory/practice around monitory democracy onto mechanisms of parliamentary democracy and they will not work, and probably should not. See John Keane, Democracy – A Short History for what I think is a good structure for thinking about democracy’s past present and future and the problems with mixing your assumptions about what democracy is for and how it should work. But that is a big fat debate sandwich for another day…….
But back to this article – to take the most obvious bit of it here – I’d have to take issue with your assumption is that those who did not vote in the election are somehow “disenfranchised”. This is notoriously tricky territory in any voting system, and particularly a voluntary voting system. You cannot infer motives from a failure to vote, and your assumption that those who did not vote feel/are disenfranchised is just projection – and untestable at that.
It gets just as tricky (and I would say logically untenable) when you attempt to infer the “disenfranchisement” of electors from the behaviour of TDs who voted against the formation of the government (or who abstained).
How do you know that abstention or opposition was exactly what the electors wanted their representatives to do? “A plague on all their houses” is a perfectly acceptable democratic statement (and an increasingly common one) and so perhaps voting against the formation of the government
You seem, in my view, to take an unnecessarily reductionist view of what electors “want”. In any electoral system, electors will attempt to both game the system and use their vote to send complex signals about what they ‘want’ from the election – messages about policy, their views on politics as a whole, as well as who they want ‘in government’ (the breakup of the two party system and existence of Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan only make sense if voting is about way more than just a simple expression of preference for-government)
In the Irish example an equally plausible rationale for how electors thought about electing those TDs who went on to abstain is: “at the election we wanted to send a message to the political class about how they stink. But we also want stable government once the election is done, so we will sit out the vote on government formation to give you a shot at success. However, you’re on notice if you bugger it up we will bring the lot down”. That is a relatively sophisticated collection of messages, but one that accords with what I know of the mood of the Irish electorate, and a reading that is wholly consistent with the behaviours of the various TDs. So this reading is that the TDs did reflect the will of the electors and there is no disenfranchisement at all.
It is also, and I suppose this is the point, an unverifiable reading. But so is your contention that the poor populace are “disenfranchised” by their TDs not having a say in government formation.
I reckon there should be a lot more made of the agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It certainly raises the concept of the “Loyal Opposition” to quite ludicrous heights as it appears to set out the areas where disagreement will be “off limits” between the two sides of the despatch box. It probably makes it a very brittle document (how will it deal with ‘black swans’ beyond its conception?), but as an attempt to graft the 21st century realities of fragmentation of politics onto the hulking formality of 19th/20th century party political/parliamentary design it is a very, very interesting experiment and all power to their arm.
Certainly compare and contrast with Spain, where it’s back to the polls after a similar (but failed) process of minority government forming in an environment of a fracturing two-party system and no possible stable coalition.
From an Australian perspective, it is fun to speculate on an unlikely but possible post-July result where both Houses are hung and there are a swag of Greens/Xenophiliates/independents in the Lower House who (analogous to the Dáil) range in views on the viability/acceptability/legitimacy of a minority Turnbull government. Would a Chris Bowen-led Opposition (hey, Shorten falls on his sword and both heirs apparent – Albo and Tanya lose to stronger-than-anticipated Green insurgencies….) be tempted to present the ultimate small target by developing an equivalent formal “agreement to disagree”, which in turn suits Turnbull as it neuters his paleolithic conservative party room……
Finally, just outright pedantry.
You refer to the Dáil at one point specifically as the “Parliament”; which it is not. It is the Lower House of the Parliament (Oireachtas) but given that the Upper House (Seanad) is made up of a batshit crazy combination of appointees, indirect electoral colleges and general whackery (seats elected by graduates of the University of Dublin ffs) the Dáil is often used as shorthand for the whole Parliament. Nevertheless, might be worthwhile revisiting the reference for total accuracy.
As a complete aside, the example of the Seanad Éireann should give all Australians pause to bow down and thank Barton we designed our system when we did. A few years earlier and we would have had a hereditary Senate full of Bunyip aristocracy (Lord Barnaby Joyce, Senator for life????) but much later and we might have got caught up in same bonkers ideas about ‘organic states’ that have left Ireland its crock of a House of review. There’s just time to squeeze in some wholly unnecessary Godwin’s Law by saying that the early twentieth century theorising about the corporate nature of the state that resulted in the mad Seanad was one step on the path that led Europe to the hardcore crack cocaine of corporatism – fascism. So lucky escape for us there, and one final total tangential thought – I reckon the corporate model of state building inherent in the Seanad could not have survived World War Two if Ireland had not stayed neutral.
Wow, a treasure trove of comments there cbmelb.
On ‘tangential’ – your comments on the formation of government – I fully agree that there is more to say about the unusual arrangements which sustain the recently installed Irish government, and I’m working on more posts on this. Certainly the decision of Fianna Fáil to effectively abstain, not only on the original vote but in an ongoing way, is highly unusual in Westminster parliaments. I’m searching for similar cases.
On ‘relevant’ – the assessment of mandate and public support – there is even more to say, and it goes to the issue of what people are actually doing when they elect members of parliament. Do all voters have the same kind of intent regarding the formation of executive governments from the resulting assembly? Many people vote for independents or even for parties with an unashamedly disruptive political programme, so clearly not all voters are choosing sides in a simple two-possible-governments dichotomy. What does this mean for issues of ‘mandate’?
The difficulty is also that elected assemblies have multiple, often conflicting tasks – including forming governments, ensuring subsequent government accountability, fiscal (tax and spend) control, considering ordinary legislation, and inquiry into public issues – and these diverse functions are set up by just one electoral process.
Much more to write about. But for the moment lets quickly clear up your ‘pedantry’ item: of course you are correct, I’m guilty of abbreviation. (Balancing the need to keep it simple with the call for precise use of language is a challenge with these posts.) Under its constitution the ‘parliament’ of Eire is the Oireachtas, which is formally made up of the President of Ireland and the two houses, the Dáil and the Seanad – a triad similar to the British Parliament. Given that the Seanad is a hybrid body, with some appointed seats, the bulk of seats elected from a very constrained pool of nominations, and finally a number of university seats (which therefore give some voters ‘plural votes’), the Irish upper house – like those of the UK and Canada, and for different reasons Germany – has limited democratic credentials, and real democratic decision-making is firmly associated with the Dáil.