Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Perpetual Campaign

“Putin Not Arsed Interfering In Irish Election.”
—Headline on the satirical Irish web site Waterford Whispers News, January 14
As Americans suffer through an interminable presidential election campaign that seems as if it has been going on for years—even though we are still more or less a fortnight away from the first actual voting—other countries mock us by holding their own elections in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Yes, the Brexit morass seemed to drag on forever in the United Kingdom, paralyzing the country’s politics. Yet once Boris Johnson finally got the various parties to agree to holding an election, he was able to dissolve Parliament in early November, and the voting took place a scant five weeks later. In the end, it all happened relatively quickly and, surprisingly and pleasingly for some, the voting turned out to be quite decisive.

Now it is Ireland’s turn. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dissolved Dáil Éireann a week ago, and voting will take place three and a half weeks from now. Americans can only dream of having an election campaign confined to such a quick and relatively painless time span.

Of course, in democratic nations election campaigning never really stops. Politicians are always angling for the next round of voting—even when they do not know precisely when that will happen. That’s one of the quirks of the parliamentary system. A government has a maximum lifespan, but frequently its demise—and consequently, the next election—comes sometime before that deadline. Sometimes well before. Any member of a parliament may theoretically ask for a vote of no-confidence in the government at any time, and if the government loses that vote, then let the electioneering begin.

In the U.S. system, by contrast, we know the dates of all future elections on into the distant future. Election Day is a fixed date on the calendar, and every Congress and presidential administration knows it will be in charge until the next election. Interestingly, Democrats seem intent on making the U.S. system more like the European parliamentary one. At least that is the impression they give. By passing articles of impeachment in the House of Representatives, they seem to want to use that power as a substitute for a no-confidence motion. Yet they are doing this in the full knowledge that it has virtually no possibility of being ratified in the Senate. You normally do not see a quixotic no-confidence motion, i.e. one that has no chance of passing, like this in European parliaments. So the impeachment is not really like a no-confidence motion after all. It’s more like a form of censure. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi tells us, “You are impeached forever.” Will that be a consolation to her if President Trump is reelected after his certain Senate acquittal? A lot of sober observers think that is the likely outcome.

Back to the Irish election. Interestingly, Varadkar has been the head of government for two-and-half years, yet this will be his first time leading his party into an election. That is because another quirk of the parliamentary system is that you can get a new national leader without having a national election. Varadkar became Taoiseach when he replaced Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael in 2017. Until recently he had been able to avoid an election by continuing a “confidence and supply” agreement (where the main opposition party Fianna Fáil agreed not to bring down the government) negotiated by his predecessor when no party got a governing majority in the 2016 election. Varadkar was able to argue successfully for quite some time that the government should not end while the “crisis” of Brexit was ongoing. Apparently, that crisis must be over because members of the Dáil were getting ready to bring down the government by holding a vote of no-confidence in the health minister over persistent problems in the healthcare system.

So what is likely to happen on February 8? Polling suggests that Fianna Fáil has a slight-to-significant edge, but the real question is whether either of the two parties will be able to form a new government easily. Party voting has become more fractured in recent years, as younger voters abandon old loyalties to remnant factions of the 1922-23 Civil War and eye more ideologically-based parties. These include Sinn Féin, formerly the political arm of the Irish Republican Army but now a fairly standard-issue hard-left party; Labour, a shell of its former self after a disastrous coalition with Fine Gael; the Green Party, benefitting from a burgeoning and youthful climate awareness; and small parties and factions like Solidarity, People Before Profit and the Social Democrats. It will also be interesting to watch a new party called Aontú (Irish for “unity”) which has split off from Sinn Féin in reaction to that party’s hard-leftward tilt.

Another issue to watch in the near-to-medium future is that of Irish reunification. Strangely, Irish politicians in the North and in the Republic do not seem too keen on the possibility, but British ones seem quite open to it. A by-product of Boris Johnson’s election victory is that, customs-wise anyway, there will now be more of a border in the Irish Sea than between the North and the South of Ireland. Reunification will come to make more practical sense—even if its specter will raise all kinds of problems and challenges for the political class.