Friday, February 26, 2016

A Tale of Two Elections

“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. That means working to build the republic envisioned by the Proclamation and the leaders of that time but suited to the needs of the 21st century.”
—Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, last August
Isn’t it such a relief that the election is finally here and that there will henceforth be no more campaigning?

In your dreams, says you. The bloody election is still more than eight months away.

If you live in the States and are sick to death of all the campaigning and mud-slinging and politicking and do not know how you will survive until November, consider this. Ireland is having a general election today. It was called three weeks ago, and it was only then that the campaigning began. Now the campaigning is over. Doesn’t that sound good to you?

Yes, I am taunting you. This is the sort of thing that makes Americans go on about how everything is better in Europe and Americans should do things more like the Europeans. I call this “the grass is always greener on the Emerald Isle” syndrome. Point of clarification: the grass always is literally greener here than just about anywhere else, but that is actually irrelevant to the point I am going to make.

The fact is that, in all western democracies, the campaigning never stops—ever. Politicians always have their eye on the next election—even when they won’t know what the actual date of that election will be for years to come. But I will concede that there is something civilized about having a discreet and limited time period for official campaigning. The presidential nomination process in the United States seems completely crazy, but I don’t know how you shorten it, given the country’s political system and the sheer size of the nation. If the U.S. had a European-style parliamentary system like Ireland or the UK, the presidential election wouldn’t be quite the big deal it is now since the presidency would be more of a ceremonial position. Instead Paul Ryan would be the head of government. People who say that America should be more like Europe never seem to think about that.

The point is, though, in the parliamentary system you do not waste months and years nominating candidates because your candidates for national leader are always in place. They are already in the parliament, running their own parties. Each political party’s internal leadership contests are the de facto primaries for nominating the prime minister or, as he’s called in Eire, an Taoiseach.

The incumbent in today’s election is a man from the very county where I live (Mayo), Enda Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael. He started out as a school teacher, a profession that seems strangely prevalent among certain pockets of Irish politicians—an interesting contrast to America where every officeholder seems to be a lawyer. Fine Gael is what political scientists call a heterogeneous party which, as far as I can tell, means that it makes up its positions as it goes along. (It is usually described as “center right.”) Another heterogeneous party is Fine Gael’s main rival, the Fianna Fáil party, which has spent more time in government than any other—at least until it had the bad luck to be in charge when the whole economy collapsed and the country had to be bailed out by foreigners. Historically, power has been passed back and forth between those two parties, which have their roots in the two sides of the bloody civil war of 1922-23.

At the moment there is an interesting parallel between the political climate here and in the States. One major party (Fianna Fáil) got discredited for its role in the financial crisis, not unlike the way the U.S. Republicans got wiped out in 2008. That paved the way for the other major party (Fine Gael) but voters became unhappy with them because economic problems persisted, not unlike the way Democrats have seen their congressional and state positions shrink under the Obama administration. And, just as Donald Trump has swept in to fill a political void left by the major parties in the U.S., a lot of support in Ireland has flowed to smaller parties and independent candidates.

The question here today is whether Fine Gael and its coalition partner (the Labour Party) will hang on—possibly with the support of a third party—or whether some new combination of parties (maybe even arch-enemies Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in an unholy, sorry I mean, grand alliance) will end up forming a new government. No one expects any single party to get an outright majority. Things do not look good for Labour. Opinion polls suggest that it may suffer the same fate as the now virtually non-existent Green Party which made the mistake of going into coalition with Fianna Fáil in the waning boom years. What has some people (like me) nervous is that support for the Sinn Féin party has grown since the last election and it is entirely conceivable that it could wind up as part of a new governing coalition.

Sinn Féin is different from other Irish political parties. For one thing it doesn’t elect its party leader so much as rubber-stamps him. It has had the same leader, Gerry Adams, since 1983. Can you think of a single political party in the non-communist/non-totalitarian world that has had the same leader for 33 years? Another difference is that it holds parliamentary seats in three different jurisdictions—the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, the Westminster parliament in the United Kingdom and in Dáil Eireann in the Republic of Ireland. Can you imagine the Democrats or the Republicans having a branch in Toronto? But the most singular thing about Sinn Féin is that it is the only political party that has, for most of its existence, been closely associated (some would say has overlapped) with a terrorist organization. The standard way of describing the party was always as “the political arm of the IRA.” That would be the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the same group that waged a campaign of violence against British authority in Northern Ireland and in Britain. After the Northern Ireland peace agreement in 1998, the IRA theoretically went away, although in hindsight it appears to have merely morphed into a more traditional kind of criminal organization. Every so often, some disreputable behavior, either past or present, on the part of some supporter of the republican movement comes back to dominate Irish headlines and make things awkward for Sinn Féin.

Interestingly, as a competitive political party, Sinn Féin has adopted the trappings of a movement of the far left. Consequently, it has always had potential appeal for, on one hand, those who are strong on Irish nationalism and independence and, on the other hand, those who favor a strong centralized government. That—along with a history that evinces comfort with using violence to achieve political aims—seems to me to be a very bad combination. I am as frustrated as anyone with the apparent lack of good choices in the Irish political arena, but I hope Irish voters have the good sense to stick with parties that at least respect personal liberties.

The vote counting does not even begin until tomorrow and could possibly go on for a few days. The voting system here is somewhat complicated and counting and re-counting (by hand!) goes on until voters’ first and second and third (etc.) choices are all taken into account. So we may not know who is Taoiseach for a while. That seems pretty quaint when compared to the breathless reporting on exit polls at the exact moment that polling closes, as happens in the States.

Whatever way the Irish vote, at least they will soon be able to put their election behind them. Those of us who vote in American elections, however, still have it all ahead of us. And ahead. And ahead. And no end in sight.

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