Fears of rejecting stability have come to pass - we will soon learn our fate
Published 03/03/2016 | 02:30
Our world has changed profoundly since 2008. The global recession triggered in that year was the deepest in living memory. People are poorer today than eight years ago in a majority of western countries, Ireland included.
Across a swathe of the west economic growth has ground to a halt, or has come as close to it as makes no difference. The expectation of continuously rising living standards, which the past three generations or so had become accustomed to, can no longer be taken for granted.
These huge changes, more than any other reason, likely explain the transformation of politics since 2008. The most obvious manifestation of this transformation is that almost no government in Europe has won re-election since. Even in the economies that have enjoyed growth, very few administrations have won second terms in the post-2008 era.
For all the talk of Fine Gael's poor election campaign, it is this antipathy towards incumbents that explains a large, if not the largest part, of lost votes for Enda Kenny's party. Labour is different only in the scale of its collapse.
The possibility set out in this column eight weeks ago - that Irish voters could well follow electorates in Greece, Portugal and Spain and reject the "stability-first" message of the mainstream - has come to pass.
Along with the anti-incumbency trend in evidence since 2008 across the western world, there is a longer term trend which points to the changes brought about by last Friday's election being more permanent than is perhaps widely acknowledged.
As European societies have become more diverse over the past half-century, politics has tended to follow suite. This has been most marked in countries with proportional representation voting systems. Parliaments have become more diverse as the vote has fragmented in favour of localists, regionalists, environmentalists, nationalists, assorted populists and anti-immigration parties, to name but some.
Ireland is following that pattern. Since the 1980s, when Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour together won more than 90pc of first preference votes, there has been a downward trend in their support. The boom years, when Fianna Fáil had the cash to offer all things to all people, masked the structural transformation of how society and politics interact. But when the economy crashed, the underlying change was revealed.
The 32nd Dáil looks like many continental countries' parliaments in many ways. The 33rd, 34th and 35th Dáils are unlikely to be radically different.
If this analysis proves correct, how Ireland is governed is about to change, and not just for one Dáil term. In a best case scenario, such a change could turn out to be positive. The worst case scenario is ungovernability.
Consider the happier outcome first. Micheál Martin's tactical nimbleness during the campaign was followed by an equally adroit move to seize the initiative on Monday. He proposed a raft of (good) reforms to the Dáil before any deal is cut to elect a Taoiseach.
With a stronger, more focused and more effective parliament, there is the possibility that this would lead to better legislation. Fewer badly drafted bills might make it onto the statute book. And, perhaps most importantly, the Oireachtas could become better in its holding-to-account role.
It has been noted in recent days that some countries manage to get along well with highly fragmented parliaments, multi-party coalitions and minority governments. Sweden's minority coalition replaced another minority coalition in 2014. The Netherlands has 12 parties in the current parliament and the coalition government has a majority only in the lower house. Both have long track records as well-run countries.
Yet strong parliaments of themselves do not necessarily result in better government. The US congress is among the most powerful parliaments in the world's democracies.
Yet it has become dysfunctional in recent decades. The stasis in Washington DC makes bad outcomes more prevalent and prevents good things from being done. This 'gridlock' is a frequently cited cause of disillusionment with politics. This, in turn, has contributed to making the election of the demagogue Donald Trump to the white house a real possibility.
If Sweden and the Netherlands have done well with fragmented but strong parliaments, others have not. Italy is a case in point. It is a basket case. Rome has a mind-boggling number of ever-changing parties and factions within parties. With so many splinters, stable government has proved almost impossible. The country has famously changed government almost once a year since World War Two.
Because governments are so weak and short-lived, controlling the public finances has proved impossible.
Since the 1980s, Italy's public debt has been in the top two among European countries. Since the 1990s, its economy has been in recession or stagnating. No serious analyst of European affairs would deny the link between Italy's utterly dysfunctional politics and its disastrous economy.
Will the new era of highly fragmented Irish politics resemble more closely Sweden or Italy?
Although levels of corruption in Irish politics are certainly not as low as Sweden, they are in the ha'penny place compared with Italy. That is a positive.
Less positively, reform of the Dáil without reform of the electoral system is likely to bring little change. That is because TDs would have no incentive to use their greater powers if their electoral survival continues to depend on delivering for their constituents rather than fulfilling their role as parliamentarians.
Last Friday gave plenty of examples to prove that there is little connection between votes received and work done in Leinster house.
Ciaran Lynch, for instance, put enormous effort into the Banking Inquiry as it chair, but the people of Cork south central did not think he deserved re-election.
There is a further factor which gives cause to think politics in Dublin is about to resemble more closely the chaos of Rome than the stability of Stockholm.
Ireland is unique in the democratic world in the number of Independents who get elected. In most countries, there are no non-party parliamentarians. This is not an accident.
Almost all countries with proportional representation voting systems also have thresholds of the national vote - usually 3-5pc - above which candidates must win to enter parliament. This mechanism is designed very deliberately to prevent excessive fragmentation. Ireland is very unusual in having no threshold.
While some Independents have much better records as parliamentarians than some party TDs, the sheer number of them now will make it much more difficult to ensure any kind of government programme can be agreed and implemented. It appears increasingly inevitable that a second election will be held in short order. There may be some defragmentation of the vote, but it is unlikely to change much. We will know soon enough if ungovernability is to be our fate.