Monday, March 07, 2016

Europe's post-election crises: Irish edition

Given the growing ranks of European countries unable to form governments in the wake of elections (Ireland, Slovakia, Spain, and Portugal hanging by a thread), readers may ask: where is the Vox-style piece on what you need to know about Irish politics? Well, here's an attempt. In the Vox style, it will contain numerous declarative statements that are in fact opinions, but that's intrinsic to politics. Equally, it will contain statements that will seem redundant or simplistic to Irish readers. That's intrinsic to abbreviated explanations.

The narrative of Irish electoral politics is built around Fianna Fáil (FF). Given the nature of the Irish electorate, FF is a centre-right party but with a pragmatic policy orientation. Its retail political model is highly clientelist while in economic terms it's best understood as an alliance of the non-traded sector: small farmers, public sector unions, and domestic industry, especially construction. The Irish electoral system enables localized political relationships, so the clientelist model is essential to electoral success, but the hyper-local nature of politics leads to a blinkered view of ethical issues in politics -- voters "know" their local politician better than any conflict of interest revelations can tell them.

Besides FF, the landscape consists of Fine Gael (more definitively centre-right but also with an urban liberal faction), moderate left (Labour), and left-nationalist Sinn Féin. As Sinn Féin moved from an absentionist model vis-a-vis political institutions both sides of the border to shared power in Northern Ireland and increased electoral success in the Republic, they've successfully occupied the dissenting left space in the Republic. In common with other countries, conventional party loyalties have been on a downward trend, and that has opened space for a variety of small parties and independents reflecting both specific themes but sometimes simply county-level popularity and issues.

Given this background, the Irish economic-electoral cycle can now be outlined.

Each cycle is 20 years. At the start, Fianna Fáil come to power. Their pragmatic and interventionist leanings generates some growth. Their interests do well from this and as incomes grow, the growth takes on some momentum. But as it does, the clientelist politics and demands of the vested interests start to take a bigger toll on the sustainability of growth. Eventually a combination of external shocks and domestic blunders operating in a weakened governance and economic environment causes a crash. FF lose the next election and a rival FG-led coalition comes to power. The nature of the crisis forces the alternative coalition into orthodox adjustment, especially on the fiscal side. This adjustment is successful, but the floating electoral vote blames the alternative coalition, while the vested interest and clientelist FF base stays loyal to them. The electoral space is thus too small for the coalition to sustain itself. However, the adjustment policies are successful, and leave foundations for the next boom. Go back to the start of this paragraph.

The anchor years for the cycle are 1977 and 1997, and 1957 arguably also fits especially if 1948-57 is counted as a single spell of alternative government. And here's the problem: it now fits 2016!

Some other elaborations may also be useful. FF's electoral base has eroded over time, as the governance and crisis issues take their limited but cumulative toll. This has made them increasingly reliant on others for parliamentary majorities. However, support from other parties for FF in government has weakened or destroyed the supporting partner. This law of Irish politics covers Labour (1930s, 1990s), Fine Gael (post-1987), Progressive Democrats and Greens (various stages of 1997-2010). Any party considering support for FF will therefore treat it like the story of the Scorpion and the Frog. FF is the Scorpion.

It's also important to bear in mind that Ireland is a small and very open economy. Much of what happens on the economic side is connected to external events. There's also a long history of people leaving, and more recent history of arriving, in search of jobs. Perhaps understandably, voters tune out a lot of factors that they can't control, and focus instead on their direct financial stake in the role of government. This results in limits on the kinds of economic adjustment that are considered viable, especially given the way that the clientelist politics interacts with a saturated media market to efficiently produce "outrage."

The net effect of all this, especially when looking from abroad, is (as we noted recently) to find that Churchill had the best metaphor for Irish politics, notwithstanding that he was talking about two counties currently in another jurisdiction.

So what will happen? Despite the way that the big changes in number of seats per party drove the election result coverage, the parliamentary configuration points to a FG-led government operating with some kind of support from FF. The good scenario is that what starts out of necessity turns into a genuine programmatic centre-right government, which in turn enables a stronger left opposition. But more likely is that even that "good" scenario leads to John Quiggin's Anglo-origin politics 3 party system: grudging neoliberal, weakened left, and tribal.

Perhaps the most plausible scenario is that the threat of Brexit and some EU nudges from behind the scenes are able to sustain a FG-led government for a year, and then another election is tried to shake things out when there's been time for reflection. The cliches of political analysis certainly apply to any scenario: events and crises, both at home and abroad. Along those lines, one recommendation that's not quite a prediction: Brexit, its effect on Northern Ireland politics, and spillovers to the Republic is a mostly ignored factor in most of the analysis that will come into play very soon, and that (despite FF belief to the contrary) favours FG. This will be elaborated in another post.

No comments: