Guys, if I can briefly distract your attention from the ongoing flaming six-train pileup that is the US elections I need you to take a look at what’s happening in Ireland right now.
What’s happening in Ireland?
We had an election, and nobody won.
What? How is that even possible? Did nobody vote?
On the contrary, turnout this election was a very healthy 60%, down from 2011 but still high for a country where voting isn’t mandatory.
So what’s the problem?
Okay, a little background. Ireland elects the Dáil (our parliament) with the Proportional Representation: Single Transferable Vote. It’s the system that most accurately reflects the views of voters and using it makes the Dáil one of the most democratic legislatures in the world. Compare that to our upper house, the Seanad, which isn’t even fully elected and is probably the least democratic legislature in the developed world. Ireland: A land of contrasts. Basically in PR:STV you are allowed to not simply vote for your favourite candidate but to rank all the candidates in order of preference. This allows people to vote for smaller parties that better align with their politics without worrying that their vote will help parties they disagree with (think, being able to vote for Nader without worrying that you’re helping Bush to win).
That sounds super complicated.
It’s really not. You put a 1 by your favourite candidate, a 2 by your second and so on. Easy peasy.
No, I didn’t mean the voting, I meant the counting the vote.
That is SUPER complicated, yes. It’s a Lovecraftian, nightmare inducing madness but hey, I just vote so it’s not my problem. Although if you’re interested, this video explains the whole process better than I ever could.
So what happened?
The people cast their ballot and at the end the vote looked like this:
Holy shit that’s a lot of parties. What am I even looking at?
Okay, so the blue bar at the top is Fine Gael, currently in government in coalition with the Labour party (the lighter red bar). Second down is Fianna Fáil who’ve been the party of government for most of Ireland’s history but were banished to the land of ghosts and shadows in the 2011 election because the 2008 crash happened on their watch. They’ve bounced back in a huge way this election because apparently a quarter of the country suffered some kind of head trauma that effects medium term memory. The bright patriotic green guys three rows down are Sinn Féin who are ABSOLUTELY NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE I.R.A. IN ANY WAY AND NEVER HAVE BEEN.
And below them? That big long black 13%? The independents, just ordinary men and women without even a party who managed to collectively come in fourth over all.
In an anti-establishment mood are we?
Brother you don’t know the half of it. Then there’s Labour (centre-left), the far left People Before Profit-Anti-Austerity Alliance…
Sorry, sorry. New centre left party the Social Democrats, the Green Party, and new centre-right party Renua.
Okay, well, Fine Gael clearly got more votes so don’t they win?
No, they just lost less than everyone else. See, in order to form a government a party has to have a majority of the 158 seats in the Dáil. As you can see, they don’t have that. They’re not even close. They’re closer than anyone else but still not close.
And this has never happened before?
Oh no, that happens all the damn time. It’s actually very rare that one party will get enough votes to form a majority and so most Irish governments have been a coalition between one of the two big Civil War parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) and a junior coalition partner (usually Labour, that tramp).
So why doesn’t Fine Gael just form a coalition government?
Good idea. One question. Who with? Fianna Fáil got the next largest tally and combining with Fine Gael would give a majority but there’s a problem.
Irreconcilable ideological differences born from deep-seated conviction and principle?
No, they’re both middle of the road centre right parties with precious little daylight between their positions. The problem was that when I referred to them as “Civil War” parties I wasn’t being hyperbolic. These guys were literally shooting at each other ninety odd years ago. Any government they form is going to be unstable and also, super, super awkward as it would tend to be if you had to work with somebody whose grand-dad tortured yours to death in a shed in Cavan with a set of pliers.
Any other way this might shake out?
You got me. That big stack of independents is another wild card. See, unlike the other bars they don’t have a unified political position, that group includes people from Mao to Pinochet and all points on the spectrum in between. Really difficult to know just how much of that 13% percent Fine Gael might be able to peel off but even if they got the whole damn thing it wouldn’t be enough to keep their coalition with Labour intact.
What about Sinn Féin? They got 13% too…
Let me stop you right there. Not gonna happen. Neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael will go into government with Sinn Féin on principle and especially not with what’s been going on in Dublin’s gangland recently.
Oh begorrah, a bit of a Donnybrook brewing between the clans?
If you mean a bloody and vicious spate of gang shootings, then sure. The media has been all over it and frankly Dublin for me right now is like Game of Thrones if you just tuned in halfway through; I have no idea who all these people are and why they’re killing each other. But since Dublin’s crime families are heavily intertwined with dissident Republican groups who HAVE NO CONNECTION TO SINN FÉIN AND NEVER HAVE.
It’s just not happening…
If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil aren’t able to come to an arrangement then there will have to be another election. If that happens either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil may throw their hands up and say “Look, we know we said we’d never go into government with the Shinners but this is how you voted and someone needs to run the country so what do you want from us?”
So right now the most likely outcomes are an unstable coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that may well collapse sooner rather than later, or possibly another election with Sinn Féin actually taking power. Of course, even if FG/FF do manage to keep it together for the sake of the kids, that makes Sinn Féin the largest opposition party, which will be earth-shaking in and of itself. After all, the largest opposition party is essentially a government in waiting…
There was an election. And nobody won.