Time taken to form a government is not unusual

Guest post by Brian Hayes MEP

The people have voted, the counts have finished and the 32nd Dáil has sat, yet we have no government. People are beginning to get frustrated with the ‘slow’ pace of government formation. Parties are setting out their positions, negotiations are being held and support sought to elect a Taoiseach and form a new government. The questions now being asked is when will a government be formed and how long will the negotiations last? But we need a proper context to fully consider this question.

It’s not just the Irish people and our media who are asking this question. Foreign governments, international NGOs, central banks and our trading partners are all interested. In the European Parliament I’m constantly asked by colleagues, when will Ireland have a government? The views of MEPs across Europe are wildly different. Some expected Ireland to have a government in a week; others suggested it could be months. As ever the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

belgium

Recently the media highlighted a Fianna Fáil source saying that government formation in Europe takes an average of 28 days. In reality this only tells half the story and is not a fair reflection of the exiting research in the area.

Research by Alejandro Ecker and Thomas M. Meyer for their paper “The duration of government formation processes in Europe” (2015) looked at the length of time European political parties took to negotiate and form their governments. The research looks at the formation of a whopping 297 governments. They examined the average time it took to form a government after an election in 27 European countries. For Central and Eastern European countries they went back to their independence and for Western democracies they looked back as far as 1990 up to 2014.

The results are fascinating. On average in the Netherlands it takes 90 days to form a government and Austrians take 75 days. While in Denmark, Greece and France it only takes 4, 3 and 2 days respectively.

In the recent past the average time it took to form a government in Ireland was 20 days. This is broadly similar to the time it takes to form a government in Romania, Slovakia and Portugal. If history had repeated itself that would have given us a government on St. Patrick’s Day.

Country

Avg. Government formation (days)

Netherlands

90

Austria

75

Italy

44

Belgium

43

Spain

42

Czech   Republic

39

Bulgaria

37

Lithuania

34

Germany

33

Slovenia

33

Hungary

32

Latvia

30

Poland

29

Estonia

26

Portugal

21

Ireland

20

Romania

19

Slovakia

19

Finland

18

Norway

15

Iceland

10

Sweden

9

UK

5

Denmark

4

Greece

3

France

2

Source: Ecker and Meyer

Based on the table above it’s true that on average it takes 28 days to form a government in European countries, but this takes no account of the significant differences within and between Western and Eastern political traditions or majority / coalition government formation.

F1.large

Delving into the research deeper you discover that Western democracies take less time to negotiate a government then Central / Eastern European democracies, but if you strip out the majority governments from the research and look solely at coalition government formation, you get a totally different picture.

The average time it takes to form a coalition government in Western Europe is 40 days and 43 in Central / Eastern Europe. That’s double our own average and over a week longer than what was initially predicted.

The research also threw up some surprising reason for the delay or rather what was not causing the delay. Intuitively you would imagine that the more parties involved the longer and more “complex” it would be to negotiate a coalition government. Not so. There was little evidence that involving more parties delayed the formation of a government. Similarly you would imagine that ideologically opposed parties would take longer to negotiate a government. Again no empirical evidence could be found to prove this assumption.

The main cause for the delay is consensus building. Finding the common ground for all parties and building a stable government on that foundation. If – as the European example shows – it can take months to form agreement between parties, the best advice is to simply leave the parties at it.

We don’t want to sleepwalk into a needless election but we shouldn’t rush to form a government at any cost. If a government is to be formed it cannot lurch from one crisis of confidence to another. It is essential that we allow negotiators on all side the time and space to form a stable, consensus government.

Brian Hayes is the Fine Gael MEP for Dublin

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2 thoughts on “Time taken to form a government is not unusual

  1. Thanks to Brian Hayes for this useful and timely article. Top-class and thoughtprovking contribution to what is now shaping itself up as a new political crisis we could do without.

    Brian’s analysis provokes some questions including: What does government “ at any cost” mean? How should ‘the national interest’ be defined in this context?

    In the blame-game now entering full flow, Fianna Fail is the current nominated scapegoat and party-spoiler. Fine Gael and some editorial writers tut-tut in unison from the high moral ground, aghast that Michael Martin would turn down the offer of a two year stint in the best job in Ireland. Fine Gael frontline spokesman ( an array from which the current acting Taoiseach is conspicuous in his regular absence) have been quick to frame Martin’s rejection of their man’s ‘generous offer’ as prioritising narrow party interest over ‘the national interest’.

    Too quick. Fine Gael have run close to conflating their own interests, and the political survival of their current party leader, with ‘the national interest’. As for editorial writers, and pundits, in their haste to see the formation of a government, any government, supermajority or no-majority at all, analysis of what constitutes ‘the national interest’ in its ultimate formation is overlooked.

    In retrospect, Michael Martin’s caution may well be turn out to have been well-founded. The outgoing administration enjoyed the largest majority in the history of the State. Good use was made of that majority position and the stability it afforded the administration. Inclusive politics were promoted; sclerotic parliamentary processes were overhauled and comprehensively reformed; government policy on a daily basis prioritised fairness and justice and protection of the most vulnerable groups in Irish society in the distribution of, and access to, public goods and services.

    Eh, no; it wasn’t quite like that , was it? More a record of high-level policy incompetence, pursuit of every opportunity to further centralise power (of which, thankfully, several major initiatives hit the rocks at the hands of the electorate), deliberate hollowing out of the infrastructures of local government and community based organisations of civil society. Where mega-level policy failure was exposed, shameless ‘spin’ that always fingered some other poor sap, or the previous government, was rapidly rolled out to put a gloss on things. But there was nothing new in this experience of how Irish governments operate in practice. Historically, governments with overweening majorities have never served Ireland well – think Fianna Fail government 1977-’79.

    One of the most disheartening aspects of the past 40+ days includes the seeming inability by all parties who subscribe to the ideals of representative democracy to take their responsibilities – or the national interest, if you prefer – on board. At first base that would involve a recognition that where traditional political party preferences have fractured and are now widely dispersed among a multiplicity of factions, and where public trust in politics hangs on a knife edge, all parties that proclaim allegiance to the aspirations and ideal of representative democracy must play a role in the processes of forming a government, whether or not they sign up, as individuals or parties, to direct involvement in whatever Government formation subsequently emerges from that engagement.

    For instance, where is the Labour Party in all of this? Instead of availing of the opportunity to act as ‘an honest broker’ and using its expertise and experience to suggest and promote mechanisms that would assist and facilitate engagement by other parties in the formation of government, it has consigned itself to near-complete political irrelevance and sheltering in its default political comfort zone. That’s a pity.

    For some reason, Fine Gael appear to be under the illusion that it won the recent election. That the issue of who should lead the next government, and the terms of its constitution, properly belongs with them and resides solely within their grace and favour i.e. ‘Fine Gael interests’ equals ‘national interest’. Small surprise then that the negotiations with the Independents have been a fiasco. No surprise either, that their first foray into discussions with Fianna Fail has come undone.

    What’s in the ‘national interest’ is to have (a) a functioning Cabinet, shorn of those acting ministers who failed to be re-elected and no longer have any business in it; endorsed by a Dail vote to act as a decision-making interim government; (b) a functioning Dail, that will process outstanding legislation and sign off on matters of urgency, for example in the performance of Ireland’s international obligations; (c) formation of ad hoc parliamentary committees, as required, to progress issues of national importance, and finally, agreement by the Dail on an inclusive process of negotiation among all parties with a view to forming a government within a defined period. Agreement among all such parties on the development of a long term ‘programme of national objectives’ might serve as a useful bedrock to any such talks. But that’s a subject for another day. Otherwise, can we have a new GE please?

  2. The esteemed MEP can blow as much smoke as he likes, but the main source of delay is the unwillingness (up to recently for FG and continuing for FF) to respond to the main message conveyed by a majority of voters. Since citizens vote for many parties and individuals and have many motivating factors, it’s often difficult to discern what message or messages a majority of voters is seeking to communicate. However, the results of the last two elections should not leave anyone in doubt about the messages. In 2011 a majority of voters were intent on giving FF and the Greens the electoral kicking they fully deserved. This year a majority of voters were intent on giving FG and Labour a thorough electoral kicking – which they also fully deserved. The arrogance and the hubris and the mixture of cunning, protection of vested interests and incompetence epitomised by the establishment of Irish Water gave many voters more than enough reasons. The result is that a majority of voters have decided that neither of the two main parties which have formed the core of alternating governments since the foundation of the state should not have the means to form a government without active support from the other.

    Neither FF nor FG wants SF being the dominant force in opposition, but they should not worry about this. In the last two elections the voters have sorted them (and Labour and the Greens) out and, at the next election, there is every likelihood they’ll sort out the opposition (whatever shape emerges). Voters can do only one big thing in a general election and it often takes a few general elections for them to sort things out fully. One could argue that it took the best part of a half-dozen general elections to sort out the monumental screw-up of the 1977-79 government, the half-arsed subsequent attempts to sort it and to set the basis for the Celtic Tiger.

    Given that the penny has finally dropped for FG (it probably dropped some time back but they had to go through the motions), it remains to be seen if FF will get the message. If the two main parties can’t come to some sort of reasonably stable arrangement and, as a result, force another general election they will get another well-deserved electoral kicking.

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