Saturday, May 7, 2016

Irish Spring

“Millions and millions and millions and millions of people look at that pretty picture of America he painted and they cannot find themselves in it to save their lives. People are upset, frankly; they’re anxiety-ridden, they’re disoriented, because they don’t see themselves in that picture.”
—Bill Clinton, speaking in March about President Obama’s assessment of the U.S. economy
If you are for some reason relying solely on this blog for news on Irish politics, then the last thing you read about it was that there was election back in February. You might even be assuming there has been a government up and running and conducting business during these past nine or ten weeks.

If, on the other hand, you follow Irish politics through real news sources, then you know the recently elected parliamentarians (Teachtaí Dála, or house deputies) only managed to get past the step of electing a new head of government (Taoiseach, or chieftain or leader) yesterday. Why did it take so long? Because no party received a majority of votes and, moreover, there was no combination of parties or individual TDs who were easily amenable to coalition and whose numbers amounted to a working plurality. The two largest parties—remnants of the two sides in the 1922-23 civil war—did some tentative exploration of a so-called grand coalition, but the ideological and/or legacy hurdles were just too much to surmount.

In the end the Fine Gael party worked out a way to form a minority government. This entailed making commitments to the Fianna Fáil party on what actions it would and would not undertake in order for Fianna Fáil not to bring down the government. It also involved bringing non-party-affiliated TDs on board with promises of funding special projects in their constituencies and, in some cases, giving them ministerial posts. The good news for Fine Gael is that its leader, Enda Kenny, becomes the first Taoiseach of his party ever to be returned for a second consecutive term. The bad news is that he goes from having a commanding number of votes at his beck and call in the last government to being dependent on all kinds of politicians with different priorities and agendas in this one. No one expects this government to last a full five-year term.

Here’s something to think about. By design of the European-style parliamentary system, Ireland was without a fully functioning government for ten weeks. This is the kind of pause that an obstructionist like Ted Cruz could only dream of. And, yes, things kept functioning just fine without a government. This is because government functionaries—the people who actually carry out government services—were still on the job. The annual budget was still in place and they were still getting paid. The Irish government doesn’t have to keep passing emergency spending bills all the time, as the U.S. government has gotten in the habit of doing.

You might think a country going more than two months without a government would be an extraordinary occurrence, but it isn’t—at least not in a parliamentary system. Spain has had not functioning government since its elections in December. On Tuesday King Felipe VI called for new elections to be held on June 26, i.e. a half-year after the last ones. In the voting four months ago, the Spanish electorate split its votes over so many different ideologically opposed parties that no amount of negotiation was able to result in a viable government. The question now is whether the result in June will be much different.

Even the current Spanish deadlock, though, is not the worst case scenario in terms of endless caretaker government. A half-decade ago Belgium went 589 days (yes, more than a year a half) without an elected government. This was because the Belgians elected eleven different parties to the Chamber of Representatives with none of them winning more than 20 percent of the seats. Things were made no easier by the fact that the Belgian political landscape runs the gamut from Flemish separatists to French-speaking Socialists.

Given its two-party system—not in the Constitution but rigidly upheld by tradition and myriad laws—hung congressional elections are not something the United States needs to worry about. But political fragmentation manifests itself in other ways in the U.S., as we are currently seeing. Washington-based commentators keep insisting on describing the factors that have led to Donald Trump becoming the presumptive GOP nominee as something going on internally within the Republican Party. This way of looking at it is misleading and not particularly insightful. Party “membership” is self-selecting and fluid, and these days fewer people than ever see themselves as belonging to a political party.

In America, the traditional party structures, as seen at the top level, tend to mask what is roiling down below among actual voters. A sea change does not become apparent to the so-called expert political watchers until something happens they never saw coming, like Trump’s nomination. Only then do the unimaginative pundits get an inkling of what is a lot clearer for all to see in European countries with parliamentary systems.

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