One of Europe’s Most Volatile Elections

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.

Table 1:
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.

Table 2:
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

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8 thoughts on “One of Europe’s Most Volatile Elections

  1. Canada’s earthquake election in 1993 is possibly the best comparator (Pedersen Index was 34) when the Progressive Conservative party, the party that had dominated Canadian politics in much the same way FF did here, went from 43% to 16 percent in that election. The FPTP electoral system meant its seat share fall was greater – it fell from 151 seats to just two. The party never fully recovered and merged with another party to form the Conservative party of Canada. Is this what FF has ahead of it or can it recover?

    • To be fair, the Conservative Party of Canada (post merge) has recovered rather well, no? They won pluralities in the last 2 federal elections. My gut feeling is that FF’s infrastructure throughout the country will allow it to bounce back in a similar way in the near future. What may happen, however, is a ‘rebrand’ of the FF image, maybe taking on the membership and ideas of one or several of the smaller party groups milling about at this point.

      • But that it was partly the slow collapse in the party infrastructure that has lead to the national election result being so bad.

        They have lost a large chunk at the base of the party pyramid over the last two local election campaigns, and the report that Brian Cowen chaired long before becoming leader noted that the notional membership figures were hiding a real problem with age profile and activity levels.

        FF right now, does not have remotely the same strength in the cumann structure as it once had. I suspect that FF are unable to match the Labour or SF at present in running a national campaign and I don’t see that changing this side of the next election. In 2002 Fine Gael suffered a massive loss of seats from a 5/6% loss in support, but many people myself included rushed back into being involved because we saw in the party something of value that both needed and was open to being revived. And we felt we had been unnecessarily indifferent, this time those who did not vote for FF are antagonistic not indifferent.

    • The Canadian analogy is even more depressing for FF than you suggest. The Progressive Conservatives retained a strong regional base in Ontario and continued to be associated with successful parties at the provincial level. Moreover, under the then permissive Canadian regulations, the Progressive Conservatives continued to attract substantial corporate funding. Corporate funding is now limited to very small contributions in Ireland and FF was wiped out in local elections too. The PC strength in Ontario made it an almost irresistible partner for the Western-based Reform party. There are no such geographical limits to the SF and FG electorates and no such stronghold for FF. Neither do they have a class or ideological stronghold with which to bargain. They’re a party of power without any power or prospect of power. Presumably, their best hope is the FG strategy: vote for FF because we’re not FG.

    • If FF survives to contest the next election it will be the first time it will have been out of power for a full Dail term without any realistic prospect of being the dominant incoming party of government. Without the prospect of power and the associated ability to distribute patronage and largesse it will have lost its raison d’etre. Rather than look at Canada, let’s look forward in an EU context and note that the likely FG-Lab combo will have similarities to the CDU/CSU-SDP ‘grand coalition’ in Germany from Sep. 2005 to Sep. 2009. Chancellor Merkel went on to from a CDU/CSU government with the FDP. A centre-right/centre-left realignment might finally be in prospect for Ireland after the next election.

  2. People who mention the Canadian Conservatives, as a beacon of hope for Fianna Fáil, don’t seem to realise that the Progressive Conservatives (the party which lost so badly in 1993) were then taken over by the Canadian Alliance. The Conservative party now in government is far more Canadian Alliance than Progressive Conservative.

    The logical conclusion should be for Fianna Fáil to disband and go back to Fine Gael/Labour and/or Sinn Fein. Afterall, the only reason FF exists is down to down to one person (Dev) refusing to accept he lost the argument about the Treaty.

    The mind boggles at how Irish politics would have evolved if Dev hadn’t caused a Civil War – would it be left/right or split along some other lines.

  3. far from being unprecedented, the collapse of fianna fail follows a well established and recurring pattern.

    the party of eddie macateer, the northern nationalist, the party of the s.d.l.p and that of the official unionists, the irish party in the sinn fein election after the first world war – each was squeezed off the political playing field by a party that held to the same core value but in a fresher and stronger way.

    fianna fail since lemass and whittaker, has been a pro european party masquerading under the tattered flags of independence, the church, the language, smash partition, and the g a a. four of those core values are faded, and the fifth is so successful it may outlive both fianna fail themselves and the vatican.

    the crushing problem for fianna fail is that it will be stranded on the opposition benches, cut off from the dutiful debt repayment parties, while sinn fein and economically literate independents are free to cry ‘default now!’ and provide a alternative.

    as for rebuilding the party – on what foundation ? what core value ?

    if this reading of the pattern is correct, fianna fail will now come under pressure in opposition from a sinn fein becoming ever more ‘respectable’, just as they themselves did in the early years of the free state.

    far from tending to a left/right secular division – irish politics may return to having a focus around whether to cooperate with, or resist, the relevant greater power. this used to mean westminster, but now means brussels. it is called by the convenient name tag ‘civil war politics.’ but it existed in the ireland of the middle ages. it is the dermot macmurrough dilemma. it is also a natural political divide in occupied countries, an it applies in countries which live under the influence of the neo-colonialism of the united states.

    it is the same political pattern which divided occupied france into collaborators and resistance.

    and rather than a strengthening left/right pattern, irish politics may be past the peak of having a focus around ever expanding consumerism – if only because there are limits to exponential industrial growth within a finite global biosphere.

    in fact it is arguable that secular materialsm is a busted flush. the immediate future pattern may not be a labour left / progressive democrat style right, so much as sinn fein radical urban defaulters/ and fine gael rural conservative dutiful repayment party.

    of course the picture will be confused until this new dail – the march 9th ash wednesday repent-its-lent dail – settles down.

    fianna fail need to be apprised of a fundamental ecological law – competition is fiercest, not between natural enemies, but between species that seek to occupy the same ecological niche.

    • The point of my post was not to comment on the collapse of FF as such – which is all the more dramatric since it has been building up for a lonmg time, and since it got through 2007 surpriingly unscathed – but on the more striking fact that the election itself marked such a major shift in voting patterns. FF did terribly, but so did the Grrens, for a smaller base, and there are no more PDs. Electoral shifts on this scale are almost unprecendented in Europe. For me, as more often a student of comparative politics rather than Irish politics, that is what is really striking.

      I also believe that FF is far from finished, and can come back again as a strong party. It may have lost its traditional hegemony – but that has been slipping way for some time – but it is by no means gone. It’s always had a much stronger foundation than FG, and within two elections this will be again working to its advantage. Look at the Japanese Liberal Democrats. Look at the way the Italian Christian Democrats are rebuilding themselves. Look at the UK Conservatives, the French Gaullists. All centre right, national populist parties, highly adaptive and great shape-changers. As parties, they’re like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 1: pretty indestructible.

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