Saturday 21 September 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'Other countries don't ask their citizens to vote on a figurehead president because it is not worth troubling them'

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina at Dublin Castle as he was announced as the next president of Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers/INM
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina at Dublin Castle as he was announced as the next president of Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers/INM
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Last Friday's presidential election and constitutional referendum have together consumed the attention of the political system, the media and those interested in political affairs over many weeks. More heat than light was generated. Is it time to consider doing what many other countries do on both votes?

If Ireland functioned as many of its peer democracies do, neither last week's decision on who will be president for the next seven years nor the largely uncontroversial constitutional amendment would have gained much attention.

That is because figurehead presidents in many other democracies are elected by parliaments.

In almost all democracies, parliaments also determine - usually by some form of super majority - whether to amend their countries' constitutions.

How different Ireland is from its democratic peers in holding both presidential elections and constitutional referendums is not often acknowledged.

The pros and cons of such votes are almost never weighed.

They should be.

Some of those spluttering into their cornflakes at the prospect of giving the Oireachtas the power to choose the president and to change the Constitution will howl that such a suggestion is outrageously anti-democratic.

But if that were indeed the case, then Ireland would be the only true democracy in the world.

If anyone believes Ireland operates on a higher democratic plane than any other country then they need to get out and see a bit more of the world. More generally, the notion that a country is more democratic if people get to vote on more issues and to do so more often is spurious.

If that were the case, true democracies would aspire to hold votes on issues and office-holders on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis.

One of the many reasons why "direct democracy" has been eschewed globally is because voters don't want it.

Moreover, if it were imposed on them, voter turnout would collapse as more and more people would stop voting - getting people to polling stations is not easy: despite last week's presidential election being the only one in seven years, most people didn't bother to vote.

It is for this reason, among others, that representative democracy has triumphed over direct democracy. It's certainly not perfect but nobody has yet come up with a better way.

If that is the broader case for representative democracy in a nutshell, let's draw a distinction between elections for figurehead presidents and constitutional referendums. As the latter are much more important for how we are governed, consider them first.

Switzerland is a great country - I lived there for three years and admire much about the place.

It is, along with Ireland, one of a handful of countries in the world whose constitution can only be changed by referendum.

There are some upsides to this, but there are downsides too.

Switzerland was the last democracy in the world to give women the right to vote.

Only in 1971 did Swiss (male) voters agree to change their constitution to enfranchise women in federal elections and it took until 1991 for universal suffrage to be introduced in all of the Alpine state's regions.

Swiss voters have proved remarkably wedded to other, long-held ways of doing things.

For decades they interpreted their long-standing neutrality to mean that even joining the United Nations was a no-no, only changing their minds as recently as 2002.

The broader point of relevance to Ireland is that allowing a state's legal superstructure to be changed only by referendum builds in a systemic anti-change bias. There are a number of distinct reasons for this.

As there is always a chunky proportion of voters who oppose change of any kind, advocates of reform always start at a disadvantage to opponents.

Another issue is that some voters use their ballot as a protest vote against the government of the day rather than as a means of giving their considered view on the matter at hand.

Politicians know that holding referendums takes a lot of time and burns up energy that could be expended on other priorities.

They also know that they don't usually get much credit when they back a change voters accept but do pay a political price if they advocate a change that is rejected.

All of this creates incentives for politicians to avoid holding referendums or to put them on the long finger. Hence the anti-change bias. In a world that is changing at an accelerating pace, adding to the natural inertia that exists in the Irish political system is likely to become increasingly costly.

Given all this there is a good case for the Oireachtas to be given the power to amend the Constitution, as is the case in most democracies.

What about the case for giving the Oireachtas the job of selecting the head of State? There is certainly an argument to be made for it, but it is not as strong as the case for a more normal means of amending the Constitution.

In many peer republics, voters do not have a say in electing their first citizen because parliaments and/or regional bodies are tasked with making that choice.

One reason some other countries don't ask citizens to vote on who does the job of figurehead president is that it is not worth troubling them. To illustrate the point, consider Germany.

How many readers can name the president of Europe's most powerful country, or indeed any of its past presidents?

The reason almost everybody outside Germany is stumped when they are asked this question is because, like Ireland, the German president has almost no power.

Devoting months of political time and energy to electing someone to a role that peer countries - including Germany, Italy and Malta - believe is better done by parliamentarians is questionable.

After the latest presidential election campaign, which covered no one in glory and in which the winner garnered just a quarter of the eligible vote, there is more reason than ever to consider doing as some other democracies do when they elect their largely ceremonial head of state.

Irish Independent

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