Friday, March 4, 2016

Left Hanging

“Making peace, I have found, is much harder than making war.”
--Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, in a 1994 television interview in New York
I want to clean up a couple of things from my last post, the one about the Irish election.

In talking about how complicated the voting system is in Ireland, I suggested that the slow roll-out of the election results “seems pretty quaint when compared to the breathless reporting on exit polls at the exact moment that polling closes, as happens in the States.” That could mislead readers into thinking that there are no exit polls in Ireland or that there is no breathless reporting on them. In fact, there were two major exit polls, conducted by state broadcaster RTÉ and by The Irish Times newspaper, and there was much breathless reporting on them. The difference with an American election is that, in the U.S., TV networks will actually forecast winners based on exit polls and candidates will declare victory or concede defeat based on them—well before any actual results are certified. In Ireland, by contrast, the exit polls merely serve as fodder for endless speculation by pundits.

This is because the results of Irish exit polls only give you the most general of ideas of what the next government will look like—especially when the electorate is as divided as it is this year. The voting system here is very complicated, and watching it unfold has for me the same sensation as watching a Gaelic football match. I can kind of follow what’s going on, but if you ask me any really specific questions about the rules, I will probably just mutter something incoherent.

Ireland uses the single transferable vote system, which is also used in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, Malta, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and Minneapolis (Minnesota). The main benefit to this system, as far as I can see, is that it avoids runoff elections. Voters select a candidate for their first preference but can also give a second preference to another candidate as well as a third and fourth—up to as many candidates are on the ballot. A quota or threshold is established dividing the number of votes cast by the number of parliamentary seats to fill in the constituency plus one and then adding one to that number. (Got all that?) When the votes are counted, candidates meeting the quota are elected. If all seats are not filled, surplus votes for the winner(s) are redistributed according to voters’ second preferences.

In cases where no one meets the quota after a count, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed. In effect, when you vote in Ireland, you are simultaneously voting in a first round and in all possible runoffs—all in one go. It’s actually a fairly ingenious way of doing things in a system where there are lots of candidates running for multiple seats. What it means in practice is that there are many (sometimes very many) rounds of counting and re-counting ballots which, in Ireland, is all done by hand. A few years back the government paid a whole bunch of money for machines that would tally ballots, but that sad cautionary tale is better left for another time.

The election was held last Friday, and counting did not even begin until the next day. Some seats were filled fairly quickly. Others took days. The final seat was filled yesterday (Thursday) in the constituency that comprises the counties of Longford and Westmeath. The main government party, Fine Gael, dropped from 66 seats to 50. More devastatingly, its coalition partner, the Labour Party, dropped from 33 to 7. The main opposition party, Fianna Fáil increased from 21 to 44, and the Sinn Féin party went from 14 to 23. The bottom line is that, while Fine Gael is still the largest party in Dáil Éireann (the parliament), it is well short of a governing majority—even if combined with any potential natural coalition partners. This is what is known as a hung parliament—using the idea of hung in a very different context than the Republican debate in the U.S. last night.

One possible way forward is for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil to form a minority government, but that would require tacit support from enough other parties and/or independent deputies to govern. That’s a recipe for instability and early new elections. Some have suggested that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil form a grand coalition. After all, say those some, they are both basically the same party and are only separate parties because their antecedents were on opposite sides of the Irish civil war. The downside to this solution—apart from the psychological barriers—is that it would leave IRA-affiliated Sinn Féin as the leader of the opposition and thereby the de facto shadow government.

You know how Americans are always complaining that Congress never gets anything done because of divided government? Well, this is what divided government looks like in a parliamentary system.

So what actually brought down the Fine Gael-Labour coalition? Mostly it was appearing out of touch about how much of the country never felt the recovery from the financial crisis, as exemplified by Fine Gael’s choice of campaign slogan: “Let’s Keep the Recovery Going.” If one straw broke the camel’s back, it seems to have been the institution of charging people for the water they use. That may seem odd to people in other countries where you would never expect to get water piped into your home without paying for it, but in rain-soaked Ireland where many people, until recently, got it for free, it really grated and spurred quite a few street protests—ginned up by Sinn Féin and other parties of the left. It’s looking like the water charges may now be scrapped—even though they are actually a requirement imposed by the European Union—leaving boycotters who never paid them feeling smug and citizens who did pay them feeling like chumps.

There is one other thing I wanted to clean up from that last post. I led it off with a quote by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams saying, “Our responsibility as we are about to celebrate the centenary of 1916 is to finish the work of the men and women of 1916 and of 1981.” The 1916 reference is pretty clear. That was the year of the Easter Rising against British rule, about to have its centenary commemoration, and the year of the proclamation of the Irish republic. But why did he mention 1981? That was the year that ten IRA and INLA prisoners in Northern Ireland died in a hunger strike as a protest against not being granted prisoner-of-war status.

The war they were fighting—and the work Adams says he wants to finish—was the violent overthrow of what the republicans saw as illegitimate governments in the North and South of Ireland. One wonders just how will he approach that work if, as a result of the recent election, he is elevated to Taoiseach-in-waiting.

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