Another election – but not one to choose a government

By Ken Carty (University of British Columbia)

The 2016 Dáil has finally been put out of its misery with over 300 Bills, introduced by enthusiastic local TDs trying to make their mark, failing with it.

The question facing the electorate is whether the next Dáil will be any different. If one takes the predictions of informed journalists like Harry McGee, or perceptive political scientists like Eoin O’Malley, the answer is not much. The (once) big parties will campaign claiming only they can form a new government. That may be true but it will be bargaining among a new set of local representatives that determines what the flavour of that government is likely to be.

The first general election I observed was in 1973. Then voters knew that voting for either Fianna Fáil or a Fine Gael-Labour team would determine the outcome and the policy preferences of the next government. But that was a time when interparty transfer rates were high, the number of counts needed to determine winners was low, and most of those elected eventually commanded a quota. All that has changed.

By the 2016 election the proliferation of candidates, fragmentation of the vote, and the collapse of interparty transfers have changed the game. Elections are now more than ever local personal contests than national party competitions.

Consider the story of the 2016 election:
• only 15% of the TDs managed to get elected on the first count (half the rate of 1973)
• just half the constituencies managed to elect a TD on the first count (almost 90% did in 1973)
• it took an average number of 10 counts required to elect a district’s TDs (6 was usually enough in 1973)
• in only 2 constituencies did all the TDs elected command a quota by the final count (the proportion was over 40% in 1973)
• 40% of all the TDs elected in 2016 did so without ever reaching a quota (the same was true for just 16% of them in 1973)

The result has been a Dáil full of electorally insecure politicians – few can be sure of enough personal support to ensure their reelection, most know they need transfers from other candidates (of their own or competing party views), and all understand the outcome in their local constituency is inherently volatile, with the last seat(s) going to the survivor of an often extended and unpredictable string of transfers.

Despite the party leaders campaign talk about big national issues – the economy, the country’s health system, or housing and land use policies – most of their candidates need to survive these increasingly unpredictable local contests. Inevitably powerful incentives drive them to focus on parochial concerns and emphasize their local connections and service.

The result is likely to be another Dáil composed of TDs most of whom see themselves as local representatives rather than national decision-makers. So, despite pundits’ guesses about its ultimate party competition, what kind of government, with what kind of prospects, is likely to emerge is unpredictable. Elections no longer allow the electorate to choose their government and Irish democracy seems the poorer for it.

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