Well, Bertie’s finally called the election. Speculation in the media began just after Christmas and had reached fever-pitch by Sunday morning when he paid a visit to Áras an Uachtaráin (the residence of the Irish President) in the Phoenix Park. With very little pomp or ceremony, himself and President Mary McAleese signed the document which legally dissolved the current Dáil. Thus did 166 politicians lose their jobs and a three week election campaign which will culminate in a national election on Thursday May 24th got underway.
I’ve never really paid close attention to Irish politics before. Which isn’t very surprising given that I haven’t lived here since I was a child. When I lived in the UK, I paid attention to UK politics… voting for Ken in the London mayoral elections and voting Green once and spoiling my ballot in two nationals. When I was living in the States, I followed the 1998 Congressional elections quite closely despite not having a vote (and enjoyed seeing several states pass medical marijuana propositions). I didn’t engage with Greek politics when I lived there; the fact that I didn’t speak the language was probably the biggest obstacle. But I recall being very impressed by the huge political rallies that still occur, and the willingness of Greeks to express their political will through massive demonstrations that occasionally look like they may involve storming parliament (few things warm the heart like a good storming of parliament). Then again, when I first moved to Greece the country had not long ago spent a spell as a military dictatorship. People who’ve recently seen tanks on the streets tend to be more actively engaged than those who haven’t. It’s just one of those things.
Anyways, the Irish elections promise to be genuinely quite intriguing as the outcome seems up in the air right now (unlike recent elections in the UK, for instance, which were always a foregone conclusion). The electoral system is proportional representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote. And no, I haven’t the faintest idea what that means. Well, I understand the principle. It’s designed to provide a parliament that as far as possible literally represents the voting intentions of the people. So if 10% of the people vote for Party X, roughly 10% of the TDs should be from Party X. Of course, because not every constituency has exactly the same population, you’ll never get a Dáil that perfectly represents the popular vote. Nonetheless, it achieves a far closer mirror of the intentions of the nation than First Past The Post systems (like the UK, where smaller parties can command 5% or 8% of the popular vote and not have any national representation whatsoever).
Of course, STV has plenty of downsides too. It rarely results in an overall majority for one single party. My own personal view is that this is actually a good thing. However, in practical terms, nations that wish to have an active foreign policy (such as the United States, Russia and the UK to name but three) would probably find such a policy difficult to navigate alongside the internal politics of a coalition government. In fact, this constitutes an excellent argument in favour of coalition governments… it makes starting wars a little more difficult.
That said, aggressive foreign policies aren’t the only argument in favour of stable and coherent government. Is it really helpful for the people running your public services to have different ideas about the best way to do it? Large projects can easily get bogged down if there’s not a single clear vision to guide them. On top of that, what do we want our politicians spending their time on…? Working on the best way to run public services, or working on the internal politics of a shaky coalition?
OK, fair enough, maybe public services would work a lot better if our dozy politicians just left them alone and dedicated themselves to spewing meaningless media sound-bites. Still, it’s simplistic to insist that PR systems are automatically “better” just because they closer reflect the popular vote. Indeed, if you’re like me and have serious problems with representative democracy in the first place, then just making it more representative isn’t necessarily making it any better.
See, on balance… I’d estimate that of all the people I’ve encountered in my life, I’d trust less than 50% of them to take care of a pet for a week. So I’m reluctant to live under a government they’ve chosen. Which isn’t to say that people are mad, bad or arseholes in general. Merely that most of us haven’t the faintest idea what’s in our best interest. It’s possible to prove this on an etch-a-sketch. And while I’m willing to re-evaluate this belief based upon any argument you may present, I’ll only consider it when almost 20% of all deaths in this country are no longer directly attributable to cigarette smoking. A fifth of us are committing slow painful suicide while simultaneously enriching those who got us hooked on cancer sticks in the first place. Let’s face it, as a group, we’re not demonstrating an ability to exercise good judgement there.
But whatever. This isn’t a post about my own preferred system of governance (modified anarcho-syndicalism with a dash of green and a generous dollop of whimsy). Just a warning that over the next three weeks I’ll probably write a post or two analysing the approaching election. I’ll do a bit of research on the STV system and explain how it works. I’ll discuss the various parties and what they have to offer (the phrase “rapacious capitalism” may well crop up). And I’ll tell you about the issues that — say the media — people are planning to vote on (the health system apparently tops the agenda). Think of it as a crash-course in Irish politics.
As much for me as you, dear reader.