Queen's Policy Engagement

General Election 2020 Explained

Dr John Moriarty casts an eye over the recent generation election results in Ireland.

General Election 2020 Explained

If you’re not from Ireland, you might be getting mixed messages as to what just happened in the election over the weekend. Having followed a lot of UK media coverage of Brexit and of Ireland’s involvement therein, it occurs to me that some of the central themes might not be translating very clearly. At home, the public discourse assumes knowledge of both Ireland’s unusual electoral system of Proportional Representation by Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) and the weird array of political parties. So hopefully the following points of clarification are of use.


Who are Sinn Féin, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil?

As you’ll have gathered, these strange-looking words are all Irish phrases and are all parties who either just turned or are about to turn 100 years old, along with the Irish state itself. Each was created through some flavour of schism or split from the Irish independence movement of that period.

More recently, Sinn Féin has been headquartered in Belfast, contains a number of former IRA members and has been a growing force and party of government in Northern Ireland. In the same period it had until recently remained a relatively peripheral left-wing voice in the Republic drawing its supports from pockets of republicanism and support for a united Ireland. In 2007, it won just four seats (the same day that Fianna Fail won 78 and Fine Gael 50) and has climbed steadily in the ensuing three elections.

Every government in the history of the Irish state has been led by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, though the two have never governed together at a national level. Both occupy a broad area in the centre of the ideological spectrum, with each containing tendencies towards both social democratic but also social and fiscally conservative tendencies. The ambiguity of their Irish names allows each of them to adopt the strategically optimal position to both attract support from the mostly centrist Irish electorate while also distinguishing themselves from the other.

The main reason they have never formed a coalition is that, for 90 years, they never needed to, as the two fought for the larger part of a combined vote share of around 80% of the votes. This changed in 2016 when a coalition between the two became the only viable majority in the Dáil (parliament). This did not materialise, primarily due to objections from Fianna Fáil about policy disputes and ‘cultural values’, which seems to refer mainly to localised tensions among members of either party. Instead, Fine Gael, still the largest party though much further short of a majority than in their wave election of 2011 after the IMF ‘bailout’ programme, continued on in a minority government. Fianna Fáil’s role became to formally lead the opposition while also allowing the government to pass budgets and remain in office through abstaining from votes on matters of ‘confidence and supply’. This has made it even more difficult for outside observers or the two parties themselves to differentiate the two parties.

One thing they openly have in common is a stated refusal to enter coalition with Sinn Féin. Both parties’ leaderships see this as an essential stance to maintain their own voter base and prevent votes flowing to the other. Reasons they cite range from the Sinn Féin’s role in conflict and alleged criminality in Northern Ireland and the unresolved legacy of that conflict, to the party’s commitments to large scale public spending and taxation of wealth, to how Sinn Féin’s party works internally and the supposedly enduring influence of former senior IRA figures.


Did Sinn Féin win the 2020 election?

Kind of, but not really. What we have is a more extreme version of 2016 where nobody won. In 2016, nobody won anything close to a majority, but FF and FG were still clearly the largest and with FG the largest of those two and with no visible alternative configuration, they ended up leading the government by default. Here’s what’s changed.

General Election 2020 Explained-table.JPG

This time, FF look likely be the largest but with net losses of seats. Fine Gael have lost seats directly to Sinn Féin, who have also gained seats from independents and small left-wing parties. Sinn Féin had the most first preference votes, but their candidate strategy (i.e. not running enough candidates) has meant that they haven’t been able to maximise the seat return for that number of votes.


How can you ‘not have enough candidates’ and still get the most votes?

In multi-seat constituencies in the PR-STV system, big parties usually field more than one candidate per constituency, depending on their prior levels of support. They may run two or three, often with a mind to targeting two seats. However, this can be risky if the support for that party is down and the vote is split too evenly between candidates for either to get elected through the transferred votes from other candidates or one another.

Sinn Féin were particularly risk averse in their approach to this election. They contested all 39 constituencies, but in all but 3 they stood only one candidate. Based on their vote share and the fractured support for FF and FG, they could have taken three seats in all three places where they fielded – and comfortably returned –  two candidates, and could have brought in a second in several constituencies, most notably their leader’s.  where their candidates were elected on the first count without needing any transfers from other candidates (i.e. exceeding the quota, or ‘topping the poll’ in the instance where their candidate received the highest number of first preferences in that constituency).

They had a sound logical basis to that strategy though. Overextending for three seats in Donegal backfired last time and led to them losing a seat. They then a succession of poor elections and opinion poll results and were in a mood to consolidate and build where possible by the time the election was called.

(These strange dynamics of vote transfer are also the reason it takes until the early hours of Tuesday to get the result of an election on a Saturday.)

Sinn Fein also made vote gains in some areas but still hadn’t enough to get elected. Their votes continue to come predominantly from urban areas and working class areas and part of their breakthrough in this election is in medium sized to large towns outside of the large cities. So smaller rural constituencies with only three seats and heavily affluent urban areas still haven’t broken for them.

In other words, some of the votes they got were more than they needed, while elsewhere they hadn’t enough. An efficiency gap, you might say.

It may seem like paradox upon paradox. It’s a proportional system which can still leave the biggest vote-getting party not getting the biggest parliamentary representation. But on top of that paradox, it was that sight of single candidates sweeping to immediate victory on vote shares which could normally serve two or more candidates which gave Sinn Féin centrality in the news media coverage throughout Sunday.

But their spare votes and the votes gained by their unsuccessful candidates have not been for nowt, as other left-wing, centre-left parties, the Green Party and some independents have all received transfers through those Sinn Féin surplus votes, leading to several instances where one of FF or FG have lost a seat or failed to make a gain later on in the count.


Is this Ireland’s Syriza moment, its Podemos moment, its Trumpian or Brexit moment?

I would caution against any of those analogies. Syriza was a coalition with a clear left mandate. Even squinting at the numbers and tilting your head, even granting Sinn Féin the support of four other parties or blocks, plus some sympathetic independents (who might be differently disposed to working with them, even if a lot of them have Sinn Féin voters to thank for their seats), there just isn’t a way to get Sinn Féin’s 37 to round up to 80. So a swift change of the reins of power isn’t in the offing and the 70 days it took to elect the minority government in 2016 might feel like a wet week by the time this is done.

I did wonder throughout the election if we would see any reactionary stirrings resembling the move to populist right parties elsewhere in Europe and the globe in recent years. It had seemed toward the end of last year that some voices were starting to stir up anti-out group sentiment, often focused around accommodation for asylum seekers. A few small parties have started to try to occupy some of that space, but none of that has manifested in a vote share of any significance. Sinn Féin has always been pointed to as the reason Ireland’s political spectrum has no hard right, in that nationalist sentiment is absorbed by a left-wing party. This time around there were accusations that the section of their manifesto on immigration might have been ambiguously worded to sound sympathetic to, rather than confronting, people’s insecurities on migration. There was also a minor one-day controversy about remarks from a Sinn Féin councillor framing outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s sexuality and Indian heritage as reasons he might be disconnected from people. This came before Sinn Féin’s first favourable poll result at the end of that week, but I have no evidence that the two events are in any way connected.

One similarity between this result and the Brexit result might yet be the sudden introduction of the phrase ‘the will of the people’ into political debate in Ireland. With Brexit, this became the answer to any outward scepticism about the merits of the project after the referendum result.


Was this predicted?

No. Campaigns, increasingly, are everything in Irish elections. Prior to the campaign, FF and FG saw their job as getting ahead of the other and of getting close enough to 60 seats to form a coalition with a suitable partner other than Sinn Féin. They each fielded over 80 candidates nationally with a view to being in position to gain from a swing towards them should it happen. Opinion polls and second-order elections suggested that Sinn Féin support was ticking down and that seats of theirs and of independents and smaller parties would be likely gains for either or both of the traditional ‘big two’.

Instead of that happening, the closest one could imagine to the opposite of that happened.


What about climate change?

Exit polls suggested that climate change was down the electorate’s list of priorities, compared to housing, homelessness and health. However, the Green Party have ended up making big gains, becoming the fourth largest party in vote share and seats. Other parties with aggressive climate policy, including the Social Democrats and People Before Profit have held seats or made gains. A lot of this will be framed in terms of the influence of Sinn Féin transfers and others riding in on the Sinn Féin wave and that this is all a protest rather than a mandate for action on climate. But you could equally argue that some of those parties might have been in line for more first preference votes had Sinn Féin not had its surge in support. Either which way, there is a realistic change of the Green Party being in government and having the opportunity to improve Ireland’s dismal record on its environmental targets.


What happens next?

Now we play the waiting game. Officially, the outgoing government remains in office in a caretaker capacity (including some FG and independent ministers who have lost seats or retired from parliament), but without any real leeway to make policy decisions.

Meanwhile, parties will wish to be seen to be trying to negotiate with other parties to form, first, the government they set out to be part of before votes were cast and then, laterally, the government that the numbers allow. Ireland’s elected representatives have never elected a female Taoiseach and there remains a small chance that Sinn Féin’s leader Mary-Lou McDonald might be the first. The route to that would likely be through an agreement to rotate the position between her and a coalition partner.

Fianna Fáil is in the most difficult position. Like Fine Gael four years ago, it has both suffered rejection and disappointment, yet emerged as the largest party, so can’t really absent itself from government. Its leader Michael Martin has now presided over the party’s three worst ever results in its long history and may be its first leader not to become Taoiseach. FF can’t convincingly set out to be the clear leader of any government: to coalesce with smaller parties would leave them a distance short of a majority and to pair up with either of the other big parties, aside from requiring a U-turn in position, would mean accepting effectively co-equal partnership and rotating the position of Taoiseach.

Its other coalition option is with Fine Gael, who are currently playing hard-to-get and making the sounds of a party preparing for opposition after nine years of government. But all of these are opening negotiating stances. And all the parties know that a second 2020 general election is a possible outcome and will have varying appetites for such a prospect.

Sinn Féin’s hand looks the strongest. It knows that a formal coalition between FF and FG makes it the official opposition and the alternative government by the end of a term of office in which it would have time to build for further growth. And knowing what it now knows, it could add another 10 seats and become the largest party just on the vote share it achieved on Saturday with no further surge required should there be another election this year. It knows that going into government with either large party would probably cause defections from that party, so would probably seek to have the Green Party in government with them to maintain a clear majority.

However, the caution with which they approached Saturday’s election won’t have gone away entirely. A few unusual events at the start of this campaign conspired to make voters more receptive to Sinn Féin’s message (one of which is just too strange to try to explain, but search for “RIC commemoration” if you’re really curious. Its momentum through the campaign proved resilient and FF and FG transpired to be badly configured for the vote share which they each got. Those strategies would be different on another day and so would the campaign, so seat gains wouldn’t be a guarantee. So while Sinn Féin may play hardball in negotiations with the winds of change willed for by the people whistling at the window, it seems likely that if given the opportunity to form a coalition, they’ll see it as the best they’re likely to get.

The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Article originally appeared on John Moriarty’s blog.


Dr John Moriarty
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Dr John Moriarty is a lecturer in the School of Social Science, Education and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests are in mental health, use of administrative data sources, education and careers.

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