The election is big news here in Ireland.
No, not that election.1 The Irish election, in which a new leader could be selected later this month. As a longtime student of politics and media, it’s been fascinating to watch another country’s electoral process from the inside perspective.
For starters, it’s a parliamentary system here, which is still representative democracy but organized very differently from our U.S. model. Ireland does have a president and a bicameral legislature, but the similarities to the US system end there. The powers of the president and the upper house (called the Seanad) are extremely limited, to the point of being almost ceremonial.2
All of the power rests in the lower house, or Dail,3 and the leader of the country is the leader of the top party in that chamber. It’s sort of like if the U.S. speaker of the house was head of government instead of the president. The current leader, or taoiseach (TEE-shock), is Enda Kenny, leader of the Fine Gael party. (The post is called prime minister in Canada, the UK and most other places with parliamentary governments, but the Irish use an Irish language term for it.)
In Ireland, the two main parties are Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which can actually trace their historical roots to the two sides of the civil war that was fought here in the 1920s. But there are other parties, notably Labour and Sinn Fein.
One of the features of a parliamentary system is that it’s pretty rare for one party, even one of the two majors, to control enough seats in the Dail to rule it outright; parties must partner in a coalition to actually form a government by controlling a majority of the seats. Right now the partnership is Fine Gael with Labour, and the leader of Labour is the deputy prime minister (in Irish, the tanaiste, pronounced TAN-ish-ta).
The nature of a parliamentary system makes election-watching and the political analysis that happens in the media very different and interesting from what we typically see in the U.S. For instance:
- The election date was decided just a few days ago, and the election will take place Feb. 26. Yep, the campaign lasts just three weeks. The fact that the election would take place on Feb. 26 was the worst-kept secret in Ireland for about two weeks before that; from the time it became known an election would take place everyone assumed voting would be Feb. 26. But under law, until the date was formally announced by Taoiseach Kenny, no election activity could begin.
- All of the electioneering is for spots in the Dail, which has 158 members representing regional constituencies (again, like the U.S. House of Representatives). The party leaders such as Taoiseach Kenny and Tanaiste Joan Burton (head of Labour) campaign at a national level but have to worry about their home constituency, too. If they aren’t re-elected, they obviously can’t remain as national leaders.
But because Ireland is a small country, each of these districts has only about 25,000 people, compared to maybe 750,000 in a typical U.S. congressional district. That means the elections are conducted more like those for town board or city council, with a lot of leafleting, door-to-door visits and posters. Election posters are everywhere in this country right now.
- In another major difference from the US — which offers a one-district, one representative model — the various geographic constituencies have multiple representatives. With 40 such districts and a 158-member body, people don’t vote for a single representative. Instead, they make a ranked preference of all the candidates, and there may be 20 of them running on assorted parties for 3 or 4 seats in a given area. Some sort of weighted system is used to turn these ranking ballots into the winners for a given district.
Although the nightly news and all of the newspapers, from the nationals to the regional weeklies, are chock full of election stories, the lack of a single candidate for whom everyone can vote, keeps the whole “horse race” aspect of election coverage down a bit. To the degree that such stories are published, they tend to be more about which parties are likely to win or lose seats and what their final seat tallies may look like, which will affect how things coalesce to form a government after the election.
It’s the economy … again
The economy is the big issue here, because Ireland suffered severe economic problems about five years ago. (The U.S. economy did, too, with the Great Recession of 2009-10, but Ireland fared far worse because of even worse banking failures than the U.S. had; Ireland’s economic recovery also has been slower.)
Fianna Fail was in power at the time of the crash, and was punished by being tossed from power in a 2011 election. Most of the commentary says that voters aren’t ready to put them back in power now, but Fine Gael and Labour aren’t too popular, either. Sinn Fein may pick up a number of seats, but its historical association with the Irish Republican Army makes it controversial. Some of the analysis I’ve read suggests a number of minor parties and independent candidates may end up with a lot of the seats in the Dail, which would make the prospects of forming a governing coalition really challenging.
Overall, it’s fascinating, and a privilege, to be able to watch this up close — and to watch the US election from afar. But that’s a topic for another post another day.
1 Although, the US election has received a good amount of coverage in Irish media. RTE has a Washington correspondent, Caitriona Perry, whose reports I have seen from the U.S. primaries. And it’s in the papers, also. Irish people I speak with don’t know what to make of Donald Trump and why he has such strong support. As I told an acquaintance over tea recently, neither do we.
2 The Seanad is not even directly elected by the people, and that election will take place later.
3 Note: Dail is not pronounced “Dale.” I have heard it pronounced as both “Dahl” and “Doyle,” the difference probably depending largely on the TV presenter’s regional accent.