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Fractious and prolonged post-election volatility difficult to avoid.

A reply to Conor Lenihan looking at the convoluted practice in Belgium.

By John Vivian Cooke.

In his article in Village, (¨Risks of high political instability are being underestimated¨, 30 May), Conor Lenihan outlined the factors threatening Irish politics with continued instability. He detailed the calculations of electoral advantage that, in the end, led to an interval of 140 days between the general election and the formation of a new coalition. However, the insecurity caused by this dithering is mild in comparison to the frustrations and anxieties regularly endured by Belgian voters.

When Yves Letreme, tendered his resignation as the Belgian Premier on 26 April 2010, federal elections swiftly followed in June. But Letreme`s successor, Elio Di Rupo, was not sworn into office until 5 December 2011. Letreme thereby set an unenviable record by serving the longest term in office as an acting head of government in a modern democracy. 589 days.  

Ireland and Belgium use their own forms of proportional representation in national elections. Proportional representation has a tendency to create multi-party systems in contrast to plurality voting that has a propensity to two-party systems. The consequence of this is fragmentation in parliament, which, in turn, has necessarily led to a history of coalition governments. The last single-party government in Belgium was Aloys Van de Vyvere`s short-lived administration in 1925, while, Ireland last elected a single-party (minority) government in 1987. In fact, the last Dáil in which a single party commanded a majority was the 21st Dáil, elected in 1977. 

If Ireland and Belgium both reliably expect their elections to result in coalition governments, why does it take so long to agree their composition?

If both countries reliably expect their elections to result in coalition governments, why does it take so long to agree their composition? In both cases, the proximate cause resides in the mathematics of the election outcomes. However, an explanation based on contingency does little to explain the deeper causes of these delays. In the case of Belgium there are two forces in operation: one social and the other structural. 

Deep divisions in Belgian society jam up the cogs of its politics. In broad terms, the Francophone southern regions of Wallonia are distinct from the Dutch-speaking communities in the northern Flemish districts. This historic, linguistic divide always gave rise to a degree of friction between the communities. In recent years, political relations between the two communities have grown increasingly rancourous as existing language rights and the share of the federal budget are guarded jealously, all the while resenting any gains made by the other community. Unfortunately, some nationalist parties have sought electoral profit by stoking outright enmity and suspicion. Their incessant tugging at the thread of greater regional autonomy threatens to unravel the fabric of the country itself. 

The political expression of this is not limited to nationalist parties advocating greater regional autonomy.  Although some parties have an electoral appeal that bridges the linguistic divide, many parties representing the same ideological position have separate and distinct Flemish and Walloon versions. As a consequence, Belgian voting patterns cleave along both ideological and linguistic lines. Imagine if each of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit had an English and Irish version in the Dáil. After the 2010 federal elections, 12 different political parties won representation in the Chamber of Representatives. 

Although such cultural factors are not present in Irish voter behaviour, the salience of voter loyalty as a determinant of voting behaviour is in long-term decline. Fianna Fáil, and, more recently, Fine Gael have had success at individual elections in attracting uncommitted voters. But these gains have proven to be ephemeral and disguise the underlying pattern.  As Lenihan noted, the result of the last election ¨threw up an indeterminate result and an intractable three-way split between Fianna Fail, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael. Beyond these medium-sized parties, are a number of smaller parties of varying sizes and ideologies and of course a plethora of independents¨. Neither of the traditional parties looks to be in any position to re-establish its previous electoral dominance on any lasting basis.

The Belgian customs of forming new governments are very much the Heath Robinson of constitutional arrangements. The day immediately after balloting in federal elections, the outgoing Premier is invited to form a caretaker administration until a new government can be appointed. Following wide consultations among leading political figures, the King appoints an Informateur whose role it is to take soundings from all parties and identify the candidate in the best position to put together a parliamentary majority. The Informateur need not report the exact terms of the basis of government as there is no expectation that they will be the new Premier themselves, they merely nominate a Formateur. It is the Formateur`s responsibility in turn to undertake the tortuous detailed work of agreeing policies and dividing cabinet portfolios. 

Following a political crisis in 2007, it was felt that the system was not sufficiently complicated and the position of Royal Mediator was created. After elections in 2019, a Preformateur assumed the functions of the Informateur with the intention of becoming Premier. These positions are intended to speed up the process of government formation, but, surprisingly, it has not worked out that way. Moreover, in order to hold together the existing governing coalition, the positions of Clarificateur and Negotiateur were added to the mix in 2007.  If insufficient progress is not made, the process can regress a step with a fresh set of appointees. The frequency with which this happens can make Place des Palais seem somewhat of a roundabout that politicians circle until it is their turn. All the while these Informateurs, Preformateurs, Formateurs, and Royal Mediators go about their business, the previous Premier hobbles along in office a caretaker capacity. 

Uachtarán na hÉireann rightly holds a constitutional position above party politics and, thus, is denied the role of encouraging parties into government that is reserved for the King of the Belgians. The royal role is a relic from when reigning monarchs held much greater executive powers and constitutional theory then held that administrations were responsible to the monarch rather than the people.    

Alacrity is not the only desirable quality in politics. ItaIy can put a new Prime Minister in power after only one day of negotiations, but, these governments do not have a noticeable capacity for endurance, with the lifespan equivalent to a political Mayfly. Notwithstanding its delays and divisions, parliamentary politics in Belgium exhibit aspects of stability: national elections occur at roughly the same frequency as in Ireland and the legislature sits for most of its permissible term. Members of Belgian coalitions tend to hang together for fear of hanging separately, so, once formed, coalition governments tend to be durable. 

In this endeavour they are favoured by a greater degree of flexibility than in Ireland. In Brussels cabinet offices change hands frequently casual vacancies are not filled through by-elections. As a result, politicians are free to move on to better jobs in Europe or in local government without the fear of destabilising the ruling coalition. Such is the spare capacity in this system of government that the current interim head of government, Sophie Wilmes succeeded a caretaker Premier. 

The change in leadership within the political parties of the coalition that Lenihan predicts will not be as disruptive as feared and the government should see out its full term of office. Indeed, the thought of a rotating Taoiseach, or, a mid-term change of party leaders would strike Belgian politicians as far less shocking when considered against the fact that four different administrations held office in the single parliament that sat from 2007 until 2010. Indeed, one suspects that they would treat the current distress in Dublin as little more than a fit of the vapours in light of their own recent experiences. 

All the same, the Belgian example is not one we should be eager to emulate. 

On the face of it, the Belgian experience does not offer much comfort as an alternative. The solution to this volatility is not to be found in any procedural mechanisms. The evidence suggests that the problem of fragmented electoral outcomes is not easily resolved either by allowing parties to negotiate among themselves in private  through the elaborate and arcane procedures used in Brussels. Sadly, after future elections, we are likely to face the conditions described by Lenihan and all the instability they entail.