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.