DEMOCRACY - How it Works

Talk given by Dermot Quinn to a Probus Meeting



This morning’s talk started out as one thing and has ended up as another. Your President Colm and I were discussing elections and he asked me to give a talk to you on the subject. Well, I decided, on reflection, that it’s a bit early in the morning to be putting you back to sleep and so I altered the subject matter somewhat. But I do promise to touch on elections before I finish.  This talk isn’t intended to be an academic discussion and if anyone is qualified or expert in the area under scrutiny I warn you in advance that my aim is just to highlight, in the time available, some issues of interest, and indeed of concern, around the matter of democracy; things that we might not know, or if we do know we just might be guilty of taking them too much for granted. But these are things which matter a lot to the peaceful, orderly and prosperous advance of our society and, of course, that of the wider international community around us.

By now I guess, like me, you’re all nearly ‘over-Brexited’ by this stage. But have you noticed, in the course of the excessive coverage and commentary on the outcome of Britain’s landmark vote to leave the EU, how many times the words ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’ got mentioned? And this has been from both sides of the debate, each seeking to enlist the popular regard for democratic principles in support of their particular partisan position. You know the sort of thing – on the one hand ‘we were right to put the question to the voters as a matter of democratic choice’ (this, by the way, overlooks the old political adage ‘never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer’). On the other side you have ‘the people have spoken, this is what democracy is about’. Isn’t it funny how the people only come into the reckoning when they happen to be in agreement with you?

We’ve all of us here today been brought up in a fully functioning and long-standing democracy and would never dream of challenging the notion that ‘the people are sovereign and have a right to be consulted and to have their opinions reflected in government action’. But others in the world, many others, look at things quite differently. It’s in that context that I’m taking a quick look today at what democracy actually means and how it evolved from early times. Where did it come from, how did it develop and, most importantly how does it operate now, in our modern times?

Firstly, a quick overview of the past: the word democracy comes from the ancient Greeks. It combines the two Greek words ‘demos’, meaning ‘the people’ and ‘kratos’ meaning to rule. So, its literal meaning is ‘rule by the people’, which is what we all commonly believe it to be. The concept’s original application, however, for the Greeks took rule by the people to mean just that – the people ruled directly, making all the important decisions as a collective body, meeting daily! Greece still boasts proudly today of being the very cradle of democracy, although it was a very different version to the one we use today.

The exponents of this form of government in Greece were the city states, most prominent of which was Athens which first adopted this form of popular government in 507 BC, that’s 2,500 years ago. Their direct version of democracy brought the citizens of the city and its surrounding countryside together in the market place each day. There they held a lottery to select a leader for that day who would direct the government business, great or small. A citizen could only be elected leader for one day in his life. After the citizens had listened to the arguments for and against, they each had a vote in any decision that needed to be taken. There was much, much more about the way in which the Athens of the time functioned which we don’t need to go into this morning. The kernel of the system was this ‘hands on government by the people’ principle.

This, to today’s scholars, was direct democracy in its purest form: the citizens gathered together and decided everything. It has a certain naïve appeal, especially in these modern times with the oft-repeated criticisms of decisions being taken by remote bureaucrats (these are invariably located as being ‘in Brussels’), a complaint that is regularly followed by laments about ‘the democratic deficit’ (a fine-sounding phrase of some dubious accuracy). In such cases Athens’ direct involvement of the citizenry in their own business seems idyllic, does it not?

But, like many seemingly simple ideas, the devil was in the detail. At its largest, at that time, ancient Athens had a population of some 60,000. The philosophers believed that 20,000 was the ideal number for a proper city-state, so that the daily gathering was manageable but Athens still got by. Modern commentators on this seeming Greek idyll note that, in practise, it was far from being democratic, as we would understand democracy nowadays. Why is this? The reason is because only 20% of the population actually got to participate in this process. Power in Athens was limited to male, adult, free-born natives of Athens, which thereby excluded women, slaves and foreigners, as well, of course, as children. This meant that power was in confined to an elite in the population, hardly democratic the critics would argue. The labour of slaves and foreigners, not to mention women, was needed so as to allow this citizen elite to have the time to wander into the marketplace to participate in the day’s political business. But before we get too snooty about this perceived Athenian elitism, one critic has reminded us that the election that brought Abraham Lincoln to power was also limited to 20% of the US population at the time, i.e. no women, no slaves, no foreigners or children were involved, yet who’d suggest Lincoln wasn’t a democrat?

We know a lot about Athens of the time through the writings of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, preserved for us throughout the dark ages by Middle Eastern Arab scholars. Plato’s great book ‘The Republic’ is largely based on the work of his teacher Socrates, none of whose own writings survive. Aristotle, who as a non-Athenian had no vote in its affairs, wrote the first known work on politics. To him we owe the concept of ‘the Academy’, which he called his school of learning. Through such men Athenian direct democracy survived until 321 BC (that’s 186 years) at which point their powerful neighbours to the north the Macedonians, under Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, subjugated the city. The Athenian government process limped on, after a fashion, but under Macedonian over-rule (hardly what we’d call democracy), until the Romans arrived and put paid to any remaining shred of direct self-government. Interestingly, it was the Romans who gave us another of the key modern modes of government, the republic, a process which survived longer in Rome that Athenian democracy had in Athens. The word republic derives from two Latin words ‘Res’ meaning thing or affair and ‘Publicus’ meaning the people. So a republic is a thing or affair of the people, standing in opposition to rule by an autocrat or oligarchy. It’s a definition we recognise in our own form of state today. Roman citizens enjoyed great power and privileges until the reign of Julius Caesar as Consul which inaugurated a series of autocratic emperors and the people’s role in their government slipped away.

The concept of some form of direct rule by the people (which always needed a small population in order to function properly) fell into disuse then, only flickering into life from time to time in powerful city states. The last of these, Venice, disappeared with the invasion by Napoleon in 1795 into what’s now modern Italy. But by then philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, Montesque, Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers had already begun to explore the function and rights of the citizen in the emerging context of the large modern nation state. This process reached its peak with Thomas Paine and his ‘Rights of Man’, leading to the French Revolution and the overthrow of its ancient monarchy in 1789. But just before this the seeds were sown for what we have come to see as modern democratic government by the actions of what are called the Founding Fathers in Britain’s American colonies. This group of men drew on the latest ideas coming out of Europe on personal rights to declare their independence from Britain asserting eloquently, in a phrase that would echo down the years, that ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal’. It might seem a tad unsporting to note the exclusive nature of the declaration which applied to men only or, even more so, to quibble that most of those who signed that declaration, including its principal author Thomas Jefferson, were slave-owners who most certainly didn’t regard those ‘possessions’ as in any way equal.

The US, however, would go on to give the world its first democratic state with the extension of the franchise to most white males at the time of the election of the frontiersman, Andrew Jackson, as President in 1828. Britain took a while to follow suit but the voting extensions of the decades from 1864 to 1898 (which applied to Ireland also) enlarged the (male) voting base to something approaching modern levels, but based then on property holders only. Other European countries were making a similar journey, especially the likes of Switzerland, Sweden and France. It was in the British Empire, oddly enough, that some of the more radical advances were being made. The introduction of local parliaments into the major dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand brought the benefits of democracy to a wider world community. It was New Zealand that beat the world to giving women the vote, in 1893, followed soon after by Sweden.

The American academic Samuel P. Huntington has analysed this process of the world-wide roll-out of democracy over time from its start in 1828 in the US. Interestingly, Huntington challenges (with hard facts) the popular impression that democracy has always enjoyed an irresistible expansion in the world, with more and more countries managing to throw off dictatorships to free their people and so to enjoy the benefits that democracy has to offer. Nice storyline – pity about the inconvenient truth of the matter. As Huntington puts it in the title of his seminal book on the subject, ‘The Third Wave’, democracy has indeed advanced in three discernible waves which he charts in great detail. But, disconcertingly, like the tide, he also identifies two reverse movements which followed these periods of advance, which caused the number of democracies in the world to reduce again.

Here’s an uncomfortable fact for us to ponder on, here in what’s called the West. A minority of the world lives, and has ever lived, under democracy. Only a third of the countries which are members of the United Nations could be said to be democracies, even today, and the list includes some borderline cases – for instance is Russia a democracy? Most dramatically during the Second World War the number of democracies in the world dropped to only 11 countries of significance (I’m excluding micro-states in that).

Huntington’s ‘waves’ begin with a first long run from 1828 to 1926 which (after the peace treaties of World War One) reached to a total of 33 countries. Almost as soon as some of the new states that grew out of the dismemberment of the central and eastern European empires had commenced life, democracy began to come under attack there. Huntington traces the first reverse wave starting in 1922 with autocratic rulers taking office with, it must be said, popular support, so as to impose some order on their chaotic national affairs. The rise of Mussolini, and later Hitler, and the outbreak of another world war in the period up to 1942 was a depressing episode for advocates of democracy. This period saw the suppression of democracy in some of its earliest proponents, such as France, the Benelux countries, Denmark, Norway and the like. Czechoslovakia, alone of the new Central Eastern European states, had remained democratic but it lost its freedom to Hitler in 1938.

Huntington charts a second (short) wave of democracy that ran from 1943 to 1963, which covered the restoration of democracies in Europe and the end of some colonialism. This peaked at 52 countries but fell back to 30 as democracy proved a weak implant, particularly in former colonies. This reverse in numbers took place from 1958 to 1975.

Huntington’s ‘Third Wave’, which gave him the title of his book, starts at 1974 with the overthrow of the Greek Colonels coup and continued as he wrote in 1992, adding 32 countries to  reach a peak of 65 but already losing 3 to a net total by then of 62. The number hovers around the high sixties today. Indeed, one is tempted to speculate if the current rise in populist movements around the world that we’re sadly witnessing at this time will lead us to lose even more states from the democracies camp (requiring a fourth wave to redress).

Huntington’s theory is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly he shows that democracy is by no means as widespread as we sometimes think. It is, in fact, in a distinct minority in the world, both in regard to the number of states and, particularly, in the number of people. Secondly Huntington challenges the popular view that democracy is such a good thing that it will naturally grow, without any effort on the world’s part and will eventually embrace the whole world in time. In fact he clearly shows that democracy is a feeble plant that needs careful and perpetual nurturing, especially where it’s newly installed.

A little sobering, isn’t it? But before I turn to explain what I mean by democracy and how it’s meant to work, let me give you an encouraging fact. In Huntington’s analysis Ireland appears as the 9th oldest continuous democracy in the world. Only the US, Britain, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and (by a few years) Finland are older. This is a remarkable achievement for which we don’t always give ourselves enough credit. All the states that were formed out of the post-war treaties in Paris in 1919 gradually gave up democracy by the start of the Second World War (Czechoslovakia by invasion). Ireland, like Finland, had fought a bitter Civil War as it emerged to independence. But in Ireland’s case we handed over power democratically, including control of the army, to the losing side within nine years, and settled down to a long, if sometimes boring, period of parliamentary democracy that one can’t see being disturbed from within. Finland banned the losing Communists from public life until forced by the Soviets to relent in 1944.

We’ve another reason to be proud of our history of democracy. Early in the life of our state a famous German sociologist, Max Weber, advanced a theory of democracy that said that it could only thrive in a northern European country with an urbanised or industrialised Protestant population (former British white colonies were included). In defence of his thesis it should be acknowledged that three quarters of the countries that became democracies in the nineteenth century were largely Protestant. Weber’s work was, and still is, highly regarded in academic circles but Ireland is a specific case that refutes his theory. We’re largely Catholic, and at the time of our independence were extensively a peasant society, furthermore riven by a deep political divide. Ireland, by the standards of that time, should never have survived as a democracy, especially in the inter-war period. But it did and we have a number of factors to thank for that.

Firstly, the two main political leaders of the time, W.T. Cosgrave and Eamon de Valera, were strongly wedded to democracy, the first by instinct and the second by shrewd calculation. Both had a stake in preserving the state’s institutions of necessity and persuaded their followers to do the same. We also have to thank, much as it may go against the grain, our former colonial masters. It’s been wisely said that if you’re going to be colonised, choose the British. They have the best record of passing on democracy to their former possessions. Admittedly it’s not great overall but they are the only former imperial power that has managed to leave some working and surviving democracies in its former possessions. From the time of the 1898 Local Government Act, nationalist politicians in Ireland (especially Cosgrave) had obtained a solid grounding in the working of politics, allied to the experience of those who served in the Westminster parliament since 1801. It may not be popular to say but we at least have Britain to thank for our commitment to democracy.

It’s about time now that I set out for what scholars believe are the essential ingredients of democracy, the ‘must haves’ that distinguish real democracy from the sham versions such as the Soviet era ‘people’s democracies’ and such like.

Democracies are held, by the great political scientist Robert Dahl who devoted his life to studying the subject, to need the following:

  1. Elected officials, i.e. it’s a ‘representative democracy’ providing control over any decisions being made
  2. Free, full, fair and frequent elections (the so-called Election 4 Fs)
  3. Freedom of expression, on matters of common interest, within the laws of libel and reason
  4. Alternative sources of information, i.e. a free, wide-ranging media and other sources of information
  5. Associational autonomy, i.e. the right for citizens to decide to peacefully associate together for a common cause
  6. Civilian control of the army and security services
  7. An independent judiciary, i.e. the courts are guarantors of citizens rights
  8. Inclusive citizenship, i.e. those subject to the state’s laws have all the other rights above, even though they may not be passport holders

The following advantages are held to derive from democracy over other forms of government:

  1. Protection from government by cruel autocrats
  2. A range of guaranteed fundamental rights for citizens
  3. A broader range of personal freedoms than any alternative to democracy
  4. People can act to protect their own fundamental interests
  5. The opportunity for people to live under laws of their own choosing is maximised
  6. Human development is fostered more fully than any feasible alternative
  7. It alone can foster a relatively high degree of political equality
  8. Modern representative democracies have never gone to war with each other
  9. Democracies tend to be more prosperous than non-democracies

On that last point, democracy has only ever arisen in countries with market economies.

It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, an aphorism that acknowledges that, while certainly not perfect, democracy beats anything else on offer, hands down.

There’s an American organisation called Freedom House which sets out to plot the degree of liberties available in all the countries of the world. They measure this under (a) civil freedoms and (b) political freedoms, marking each category on a scale of 1-7, with 1 being the most free and 7 the least. They also provide an overall percentage freedom measurement for each country. Their web site gives the most recent data for a map of the world; you just click on the country and you get the reading. According to their latest data only four countries in the world are 100% free - Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland - little surprise there. The other Scandinavian country, Denmark, probably falls short at 98% because of the presence of a strong anti-immigrant party with input to government. Ireland gets a commendable score of 96%, presumably our abortion laws and special courts reducing our score. But at least we’re better than Britain at 95% and much better than the US at 90%, the latter presumably faulted because of capital punishment and the nature of some restrictive state laws. The lowest score in the EU is (hardly surprisingly) Hungary at 79%. Bulgaria is just above them at 80%. At the other end of the scale entirely, Somalia comes bottom with a miserly 2% score, just below North Korea and Eritrea at 3%.

Now I did promise Colm that I’d say something on elections and electoral systems.

The first point to make about elections is that democracy is not essential to elections (even the Soviets held elections) but elections are essential to democracy. There is an extraordinary array of different electoral systems, few enough that are exactly the same. Electoral engineers are quite imaginative folk as they respond to the ebb and flow of national affairs, regional or ethnic differences and the multiplicity of political disputes that colour or vary the landscape, from time to time.

The experts divide electoral systems into three broad types:

Plurality/Majority, more commonly called First Past The Post (FPTP)

Proportional Representation (PR)

Semi-PR, also called Mixed Member

First Past The Post is the so-called Westminster system and is to be found, largely, where Britain once ruled. PR is what is called the European model. Semi-PR (or Mixed Member systems as they are also called) are a more recent development being an attempt to bridge the other two models, or, hopefully, to borrow the best from both.

Proponents of the two main approaches in electoral engineering set out to find a solution starting with quite different aims. Those favouring the Westminster model say it produces firm, stable government by encouraging a two party system. They even have a name for this trend, calling it Duverger’s Law, after the political scientist who advanced it, Maurice Duverger. It’s in use, for example, in Britain, Canada and, most emphatically, in the US. It’s worth noting, however, that it doesn’t always produce stable government or indeed, guarantee a two party system. The rise of the regional nationalist parties in Britain in recent years threatens to produce not stable majorities but hung parliaments.

Advocates of the European model of PR systems (of which there’s a wide range) believe that a democratic legislature should represent all the interests and viewpoints of the electorate, and in this sense they lay claim to be more truly ‘democratic’. These systems tend to produce multiple parties, however, and invariably lead to coalition governments. Since the 1920s a consistent 60% or so of electoral systems in use are PR-based. The difference between FPTP and PR is fundamental: for one the purpose of an election is providing a government, for the other a legislature. One makes a virtue of stability and disregards how disproportionate the legislature may turn out to be. The other is concerned for maximum inclusivity and accepts occasional government instability as the price that has to be paid for this. The tussle over electoral systems is, largely, therefore a dialogue of the deaf.

The emergence of Mixed Member systems after World War II was an attempt to have the best of both worlds. The first country to introduce such a system was the then West Germany. In the restoration of democratic rule in 1949 the framers of the Constitution (or Basic Law, as it’s called) were understandably anxious to prevent the emergence of a dominant party that only commands a minority of the votes. At the same time, they were also determined to avoid the multiplicity of parties that had contributed to the collapse of the inter-war so-called Weimar Republic. So, in the German system half the seats are allotted on a national PR basis and the other half are decided by regional FPTP constituencies. To provide for this system each voter has two votes, one for the regional candidate of their choice, the other for the national party of their choice. In 1994 the people of New Zealand voted in a referendum to switch from FPTP Westminster style to a model of the German system. The change, not unexpectedly, increased the average number of parties gaining seats from 2.4 under FPTP to 7.2 now but there’s no voter discontent with the change (which arose, incidentally, from popular agitation that forced change on the then parties). Italy, as of July 1st this year, has also adopted this model, this being Italy’s fourth electoral model since the War.

The French Fifth Republic provides the only instance of a two ballot FPTP plurality system. A second run-off phase occurs if no candidate on the first count exceeds 50% of the vote. The run-off involves the two (or, occasionally, three) leading candidates. The result is the election of a candidate who gets a majority of the second round votes, but it’s a process that is just above Britain for poor proportionality, with smaller national groupings struggling to get a toe-hold in the legislature. Incidentally, this is France’s sixth electoral system experiment.  

This continuous search for the optimum electoral system arises from citizen and party concerns at the outcome of the current voting system as it affects them. Take FPTP for instance: to be elected, a candidate simply has to have more votes than any other challenger. We in Ireland are familiar with the distortions which the system can produce in our next door neighbour. Most elections there since 1945 have produced a clear working majority for one party, but no party has ever, in that time, exceeded 44% of the vote. In the 1974 election, for instance, Labour won an absolute majority in parliament with only 39.3% of the vote, gaining 319 out of 635 seats. In the same election the Liberals won only 13 seats with 18.6% of the vote – almost half the Labour vote. This is the sort of result that we in Ireland pour scorn on, because we’re raised in a different expectation of outcome from our voting system. A further criticism of FPTP is that with more than two candidates in a constituency the winner could be rejected by a majority but still takes the seat.

But PR, on the other hand, can produce repeated deadlock where there is a multiplicity of parties and there are sharp electoral divides, over ideology say, or other deep cleavages; Belgium being the most obvious example in Europe where government formation can literally take over a year. Parties in such cases prove reluctant or unable to work together in government. The French Fourth Republic, using list PR from 1946 to 1958, was a classic example of electoral gridlock, finally collapsing under army pressure that brought Charles De Gaulle back to office. He immediately introduced executive presidential rule that persists to this day. France, however, still has the most deep, historic divide between left and right in Europe.

The expert’s answer to election systems for such divided societies is the concept called co-sociational democracy. A fancy phrase, but we know it as the current Northern Ireland system. Parties agree to bury their differences and to serve together in government, dividing the seats up under some agreed formula (in the North it’s the d’Hondt system). The prototype of this approach is Switzerland which, alongside its extensive local direct democracy has, since 1971, divided the federal cabinet of seven on a proportional basis between the four main parties, 2,2,2,1. They even agreed, without much dispute, to re-apportion the seating arrangement recently when the anti-immigrant Swiss Peoples Party out-stripped the old Christian Democrat Peoples Party.  Under a different formula Belgium manages to struggle on, despite its bitter language divide. The Netherlands and Austria at different points in their history had a similar system to cope with societal rifts.

Here can I point out that it’s easier for voters in a FPTP system to get rid of a government they don’t like; they just ‘throw the rascals out’ and replace them with a new government. In a PR system, the fate of a government is decided only partly, and indirectly, by voters. For instance, in this year’s Irish election it was clear that the government were the losers but one of the outgoing government parties leads the new government.  One party majority governments can be unrepresentative of the people at large but they’re certainly much more accountable to the people, for the reason that there’s no dodging who’s responsible for the country’s affairs, and so who’s to blame.

One common electoral technique for avoiding a surfeit of small parties in a PR or Mixed Member electoral system is the vote threshold. It’s most common in List PR Systems (or the List PR part of a mixed system). List systems are the most common PR variant, especially in Europe. Parties put forward a list of candidates and the voter indicates which party (only one) he or she favours on their ballot paper. Seats are then distributed depending on what share of the overall vote each party received, and allocated down the list accordingly – 10% of the vote earns 10% of the seats which are awarded from the top down on the list. To avoid small parties being returned, a threshold of, say 5%, is applied. Of course, one result of these thresholds is that the overall proportionality of the seats in a parliament is then distorted. Some countries move to avoid this by having a low threshold, but all have some threshold. The most proportionate electoral system in the world is the Netherlands which sets a threshold of only 0.67% in a single constituency for the whole country; that was the equivalent in the latest election of 62,828 votes nationwide to gain a seat, in a country of 12m voters. Next to them is Israel with a 3.25% threshold, also for a single country-wide constituency. These two countries are top of all tables of proportionality of outcomes, although it does result, not surprisingly, in endemic party splits, i.e. there’s little need to stick together as seats are so easily won.

Such vote thresholds can produce quite distorted results. In 1995 40 parties failed to pass the 5% threshold for the Russian Duma elections, representing 49.5% of the votes cast. This meant that the parties which received the other 50.5% of the votes shared 100% of the seats. In Turkey, in an attempt to avoid the emerging Islamist AK party passing the then 5% threshold to gain seats in parliament, the then ruling party in 2002 raised the threshold to 10%, the highest in such systems in the world. This annoyed many voters who promptly punished the ruling party and its allies so that AK easily cleared the new threshold but all five others parties in the outgoing parliament failed to clear the hurdle for seats. As a result AK not only entered the parliament but got 2/3rds of the seats with only a quarter of the votes. It’s still in power, more entrenched than ever. It’s important to recall that electoral systems only create incentives they don’t determine voter behaviour.  

Ireland uses PR for elections, of course. But we avail of a brand of PR that is quite rare, the Single Transferrable Vote or STV. The only other country to use this system for its lower house parliamentary elections is Malta, while the upper house (the Senate) in Australia avails of it also. Local and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland now use it too. STV was first used in Ireland as an experiment in providing representation for minorities away back in 1920 in the election for Sligo Corporation. The outcome was that it was readily adopted by the Irish Free State for its constitution in 1922 and was included in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that set up the Northern Parliament, again to protect the Nationalist minority there. While we have retained the system ever since the Unionist Northern government abolished it as soon as it could, firstly for parliament elections and later for local elections.

During the Free State era constituency sizes were bigger than we now have, with up to nine seats in a constituency, for example here in North Dublin. This provided a much more proportional result than the present maximum of five seats. But when de Valera came to power in 1932 he used his Dáil majority to reduce the size of constituencies and no government has bothered to return to the old, fairer system. In preparation for today’s talk I went back to check the Constitution, which was a personal project of de Valera’s, and was surprised to note that it only sets a lower limit of three seats per constituency. So it only needs a simple Oireachtas vote to change it, something that the large parties who dominate government are quite unlikely to do without compulsion.

This is important because our belief that we have a strongly proportional electoral system is not, in fact, true. The Irish system is around the middle of the scale on all systems and is low down the PR portion of that scale. The effective threshold for election in Ireland is calculated at an average 17.2% of the vote; contrast that with the Netherlands 0.67%.This low proportionality can be seen if the results for the bigger parties in elections here is analysed. Big parties have multiple candidates who will stay in the race to transfer votes to a colleague or coalition partner so as to hoover up the final seat, often without reaching the quota. Every government since the founding of the state has enjoyed a seat bonus, where more seats are won than the party’s share of the overall vote would earn it on, say, a national list PR system. This has an impact on smaller parties which struggle to ever get a surplus of seats under STV.

But it’s the power that STV gives to the individual voter that explains its enduring appeal, to Irish voters, that is, not to the bigger party managers. Uniquely, STV allows the voter, not just to show a preference for a party but it also allows one to pick and choose from the candidates also. Most PR systems mandate the selection of a party and with it all its candidates, whether one likes them or not. STV, however, is a powerful voter process (the most powerful in the world) which Irish voters not only greatly regard but which they have learned, over time, to operate with great skill and finesse. Two attempts were made by Fianna Fáil, in 1959 and 1968, to change the Constitution to a FPTP method but the voters rejected both efforts, by an increased majority on the second occasionse.

One of the special characteristics of the Irish use of STV is the number of independents it produces. Indeed, Ireland in 2005 had more independents in its parliament than in all the other parliaments in Europe combined! At that time Ireland had only 13 Independent TDs, we now have 23. It wasn’t always so, although the first four Dails after independence had between 13-17 independents. The number reduced over the years to a low of one in 1969 (Joe Sheridan of Longford/Westmeath). The media at the time were confidently predicting ‘the demise of the independent member’ with the rise of big party machines. But they hung on and gradually increased up to the startling total of this year.

In contrast to Ireland’s love affair with independents, in Malta (using, remember, the same voting system) there’s never been an independent elected. Malta has a uniquely rigid party structure and voting history. Since independence from Britain in 1964 only two parties have ever won seats in parliament, Labour and the National party. Moreover up to the latest election in 2012 neither of these parties ever rose above 53% of the vote nor fell lower than 47%. Elections, as a consequence, are knife edge for the 55 seats in parliament. In 1981 there was outrage when Labour won a majority of the seats without a majority of the votes. The National party felt cheated and withdrew from parliament in protest. It took six years of unrest and tortured negotiations to agree to change the constitution so that when this occurs extra seats are created to give the party with the majority of votes an overall majority in parliament. A case of a Maltese solution to a Maltese problem?  

A sea change has occurred this year in Irish politics with the formation of a government well short of an overall majority of the seats in the Dáil. Formerly the government of the day dominated the legislature by setting the agenda, controlling most committees, limiting opposition amendments and rejecting opposition bills with very rare exceptions. The ‘new politics’ sets aside this practice of 97 years but the jury is out on how this’ll work out in reality and, indeed, how long the current Dáil will last.

There’s another feature of our STV system which rarely gets mention. Opinion polling in Ireland for general elections is difficult. Under FPTP all that the pollster needs for an accurate prediction is the interviewee’s first (i.e. only) preference. So there’s little excuse for British polling companies’ errors, less still in a straight yes/no referendum! List PR systems outcomes are also relatively easy to predict, as the voter is confined to one party preference. Polling companies in Ireland, however, are aware that when they produce their predications they too have only the interviewee’s first preference to go on. They know nothing of the voter’s lower preferences, which are so often critical to the destination of final seats. So, polling companies are entitled to a little leeway in Irish election predications.

Before I close I should observe that for all the attention that’s paid by the media to elections, for all the importance that’s placed on the possible results, for the significance we all know that the democratic process has for us and our descendants not to mention our nation, elections seldom result in the winning side securing the backing of even a true majority of voters, let alone of citizens. A disturbing thought, is it not?

The involvement of voters in Irish elections, as elsewhere in Europe, has been sadly falling in recent decades. Democracy cannot endure without the help of the people it’s most designed to assist. I know that I’m speaking here to a room of the converted, because we’re all from the most active voting age group in every election, but if I could finish with a message to those beyond these walls. If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance (as Edmund Burke warned us) then can I suggest that the price of democracy is eternal engagement?   


Presented to Sutton Probus, 5.7.16                                                                           Dermot Quinn, BA, MPhil

Mass times

  • WEEKENDS: Saturday 10.00 a.m. and
  • Vigil Mass for Sunday 6.30 p.m. Sunday: 10.00 a.m. 12.30p.m.
  • WEEKDAYS (Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri): 10.00 a.m.
  • PRAYER SERVICE Wed. 10.00a.m.
  • BANK HOLIDAYS: Mass is at 10.00a.m.
  • HOLY DAYS: When on weekday: Vigil 7.30 p.m., 10.00 a.m. and 7.30 p.m. When on a Saturday: Vigil (Friday) 7.30 p.m. and 10.00 a.m. When on a Monday: 10.00am and 7.30pm (St. Patrick's Day - Please check Church Notices)

Donate to St.Fintans Parish using PayPal