Posted on behalf of Dr Stephen Quinlan
Voters head to the polls on Friday for European and local elections, the first nationwide election since the 2011 Presidential contest (excluding referndums). Interpretations of what the result will mean for each of the parties, domestic politics, and what it may tell us about Irish people’s attitudes towards the EU more generally are likely to be commonplace. This contribution examines some of the characteristics of European Parliament (EP) elections to help us understand how voters have approached these elections in the past and provides us with a starting point of what we may expect this weekend when the ballot boxes are opened and how the results may be interpreted. This piece builds on a 2009 report in Irish Political Studies examining the 2009 EP elections in Ireland, which is now available in a virtual free issue of the journal available at: http://explore.tandfonline.come/page/pgas/fips_elections. Elswhere, Aodh Quinlivan provides a similar synthesis of the local elections that are also taking place on Friday.
The dominant interpretation of EU elections is that they are ‘second order’ elections: contests perceived as less important than national elections by voters as they are not choosing a government. The campaigns tend to focus on national political concerns such as the the economy, government performance, and domestic issues (for example water charges), as opposed to focusing on EU matters (for example the race to be President of the EU Commission: the 2014 EP elections mark the first time that the EP will elect the President of the EU Commission). Given the expected concentration on national issues, many characterise EP elections as simply an opportunity for voters to express their judgement on the government of the day. If this is indeed how Irish voters approach them, then we should observe some distinctive patterns of behaviour.
First, turnout is likely to be lower in the EP elections compared to turnout in a Dáil election. Since direct elections to the EP began in 1979, turnout in them has been consistently lower than turnout in Dáil elections to the tune of an average of 16 percentage points (1989 being the exception when the both elections were held on the same day). And although turnout in EP elections in Ireland tends to be significantly above the EU average (58% turnout in Ireland in 2009 compared to the EU average of 43%), it appears likely that turnout will be lower in Friday’s elections than the 70% of the electorate that voted in the February 2011 Dáil election.
Second, if EP elections are ‘second-order’, smaller parties are likely to perform better. This is a consequence of turnout differential and voters voting for parties in EP elections that they may not vote for in national elections. Previous EP elections in Ireland offer some support for this – the Greens success in winning two MEPs in the 1994 and 1999 elections and Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party’s triumph in Dublin in 2009. Equally, independent candidates have also fared well in the past, with Pat Cox, Marian Harkin, TJ Maher, and Kathy Sinnott all being elected to serve as non-party MEPs. If the poll of polls conducted by Professor Michael Marsh of TCD are anything to go by, it looks increasingly likely that Sinn Féin (which up until quite recently would have been considered a small party if measured by the vote share it has received in Dáil elections) could emerge as the ‘smaller party’ that makes significant gains in 2014. All that being said, while there is evidence to show that smaller and non-parties can do well in EP elections, it should not be overlooked that most of the seats in EP elections iof the past have been won by the two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Third, if the EP elections are to be ‘second-order’, the elections will be referendums on the national government. If this is the case, it is expected that the governing parties will lose votes and seats. Empirical evidence has shown that this is more likely to occur when the EP election takes takes place in the middle of the government’s term of office. The 2009 EP election in Ireland would seem to offer a classic example, with Fianna Fáil and the Greens suffering significant losses of support as the economic crisis began to hit home with voters. An exit poll conducted by Lansdowne Market Research for RTE showed that nearly half of voters (46%) said the government’s handling of the domestic economy was a factor in making up their minds, which would seem to offer strong support to the ‘second-order’ interpretation. Returning to 2014 and the poll of polls by Marsh, the governing parties would appear to have lost significant support since the general election three years ago, in particular the Labour party. This suggests that voters may follow the pattern expected of EP elections if they are ‘second order’, by delivering a message to the governing parties in the form of seat losses.
While it is clear that EP elections in Ireland are at the very least somewhat ‘second-order’, the interpretation may not tell us the full story. One cannot ignore the importance of candidates in shaping voter preferences in EP elections. We know that for a sizeable segment of the electorate, candidates are the crucial determinant in making up their minds on who to vote for. The lure of the candidate is likely to be all the more important considering the focus of EP campaigns are particularly individualistic. The importance of candidates is illustrated by the 2009 exit polls for Lansdowne/RTE. When asked what were the main reasons behind their vote choice: ‘party’, ‘policies’, or ‘personality/qualities of the candidate’, personality/qualities of the candidate ranked highest among respondents in three out of the four constituencies. They also provided the bedrock of support to many of the victors, including Brian Crowley (FF-South), Mairead McGuinness (FG-NW), and Marian Harkin (Ind-NW), all of whom are standing in this election. Looking at the individual opinion polls by constituency, it would appear that a candidate’s personality is a factor, at least in the South constituency, where Brian Crowley of Fianna Fáil is running substantially ahead of his party’s estimated national vote share. The key point is that while EP elections in Ireland have exhibited ‘second-order’ characteristics in the past, and are likely to again, we must also factor in the importance of candidates when evaluating the outcome of the election.
But to the burning question: what will the 2014 EP elections tell us about the next general election? The ability of EP elections to provide solid evidence of what to expect in a general election that follows is mixed, not a surprise given the personality driven nature of the campaigns, the lower turnouts etc… For example, Fianna Fáil performed poorly in the 2004 EP elections but went on to win a third term of government in 2007. Consequently, we should be cautious in extrapolating too much from the EP results in respect of future behaviour at a general election. That being said, the 2009 EP elections did foreshadow the electoral meltdown of Fianna Fáil and the Greens and the emergence of Fine Gael as the largest party in the state. Therefore, parties will certainly need to take heed of the electorate’s choices this weekend in terms of approaching Election 2016.
Dr. Stephen Quinlan is Senior Researcher at the GESIS Leibniz Institute for Social Sciences in Mannheim, Germany and is Co-Manager of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) project.