Guest post by Peter Mair (posted by David Farrell, Feb 28, 2011)
This election goes down not only as the most volatile in Irish democratic history, but also as one of the most volatile elections in postwar Europe. Aggregate electoral volatility is conventionally measured with the simple Pedersen index, which adds the absolute values of the aggregate gains of all winning parties to the aggregate losses of all losing parties, and divides by two. This measure of net volatility obviously underestimates the total amount of change, since party A’s losses to party B can be offset by its gains from party C. But we need individual level panel data to measure this type of gross volatility, and these data are not always easily or quickly collected. Measuring aggregate (net) volatility with the Pedersen index has the advantage of allowing for a more or less instant assessment, and of being able to compare levels of change in contemporary elections with those in the more distant past.
That said, there are two reasons why calculating the level of electoral volatility in the Irish case may be problematic. First, the index only takes account of first preferences, since it is on this basis that the party share of the vote is reported. Second, unless we go into great detail, it is necessary to treat the Independents as if they constituted a single party comparable, say, to Fianna Fáil or Labour. Since the index of electoral volatility measures change from one election to the next, we can then compare the total vote for Independents as a group across two elections, even though it might be more meaningful to treat the candidates in question as if each was a single party.
Until last Friday, average electoral volatility in Ireland tended to fall below or come close to the west European mean: 8.1% against a west European average of 9.4% in the 1980s, 11.7% against 11.3% in the 1990s, 7.5% against 10.5% in the noughties (these figures come from the new edition of Gallagher, Laver, Mair, Representative Government in Modern Europe, which will be published in the next month or two). With the major defeat of Fianna Fáil last Friday, however, these records have been broken.
Table 1 reports the results as summarised on the RTE website, and shows the party by party volatilities. These figures also take account of the demise of the Progressive Democrats, which also raises the overall aggregate figure.
Aggregate electoral change in Ireland, 2007-2011
Party % Votes 2007 % Votes 2011 Difference
Fianna Fáil 41.6 17.4 – 24.2
Fine Gael 27.3 36.1 + 8.8
Labour 10.1 19.4 + 9.3
Green 4.7 1.8 – 2.5
Sinn Féin 6.9 9.9 + 3.0
Progressive Dems 2.7 – – 2.7
Socialist Party 0.6 1.2 + 0.6
People Before Profit – 1.0 + 1.0
Others 0.3 0.5 + 0.2
Independents 5.8 12.6 + 6.8
From these figures, we can see that the 2011 election recorded a level of volatility of 29.6%, which is the average we get when summing the losses of the losing parties (FF, Greens, PDs), amounting to 29.5%, and the gains of the winners (all the others), 29.7%, and dividing by two (despite substantial improvements in the media reporting of election results in Ireland and elsewhere in recent years, there are almost always small incompatibilities in the totals given for winners and losers, but these have little bearing on the overall values of the index). As can be seen from Table 2, which reports the list of most volatile in the long-established European democracies since 1945, this is an extraordinarily high figure. There have only been eleven elections that have recorded more than 20% volatility in the postwar decades in western Europe: three in Italy (1948, 1994, 2001), three in the Netherlands (1994, 2002, 2010), and one each in Austria (2002), Denmark (1973), France (1958), Germany (1953), and now Ireland (2011).
In fact, the Irish election emerges as the third most volatile in western Europe since 1945, being surpassed only by Italy in 1994, when the Christian Democrats and Socialists collapsed and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia first came to power; and by the Netherlands in 2002, when Pim Fortuyn led the first Dutch populist revolt. It is also one of the very few elections on this list in which high volatility occurred in the absence of a major new party suddenly storming the polls, or in the absence of a major constitutional upheaval (Austria in 2002 is the other exception). New parties were the major source of change in Italy in 1994, in Denmark in 1973, and in the Netherlands in both 2002 and 2010. New constitutions were being established in France in 1958, in Italy in 1948, and in Germany in 1953. The high volatility in Italy in 2001 was also similar to that in Ireland in that it involved a shake-up of existing parties, but most of these had already been heavily transformed in the turbulent years after the scandals of 1992.
However, nowhere on this list is there another election in which the revolt of the electorate acted to the benefit of a party that had last enjoyed dominance almost 80 years ago. The Irish pendulum may take a long time to swing, but when it goes, it goes.
The Most Volatile Elections Since 1945 in Europe´s Long-Established Democracies
Country Year Level of Volatility (%)
Italy 1994 36.7
Netherlands 2002 30.7
Ireland 2011 29.6
France 1958 26.7
Italy 1948 23.0
Netherlands 2010 22.5
Italy 2001 22.0
Netherlands 1994 21.5
Denmark 1973 21.2
Germany 1953 21.2
Austria 2002 21.1
Note: All elections with a level of volatility greater than 20.0 percent