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Nay to the Mayor Yayers

We can achieve a strong, identifiable executive mayor without holding direct elections that unnecessarily increase conflict

In any discussion about Mayoral governance’ in Dublin there are assumptions: firstly, that it is a good thing, that it will solve lots of problems in the city; and second, that the mayor should be directly elected.

We usually hear the paraphrased quote – ‘who do I ring if I want to talk to Dublin?’. We want to be able to identify who runs the place. We want someone to be running the place. Directly-elected mayors give us that.

The ‘direct’ in direct election, a bit like in direct democracy, is a ‘Yay’-word. It is seen as an unarguable good. Who could not be in favour of giving people a direct say in, a direct link to, who runs the city?

These assumptions ignore the relationship between central government and city government and what competencies are appropriate for the mayor, what geographical area the mayor might rule over, and the central issue of funding.

They also ignore the fact that we can and do have strong political leaders who are not directly elected.

There are broadly three models for city governance. One is the Council-Manager system we currently have – where the mayor has no executive powers. There’s an assumption that it is a bad thing. It certainly isn’t very democratic: it is not responsive to voters’ wishes and there are no clear links between the vote in local elections and local government policy. It’s also not very transparent – though that might be due to the absence of real media reporting of city government. It in turn might be a function of the lack of clarity in decision-making.

The second model is the directly-elected mayor or Mayor-Council system. It is used in London, some other European cities, such as Rome, and about half the big US cities, including New York and Chicago. Probably because our nearest neighbour and biggest influencers adopted and use it, we naturally assume it is the one for us.

But within this system, things aren’t uniform. They can be strongly mayoral or weakly mayoral – so the Council’s control of the legislative and financial functions can vary considerably.

There is a third model. It is a Council system.
The elected councillors appoint a mayor, who has executive functions. As with the directly-elected mayor, depending on rules, the mayor’s power can vary quite significantly. The system is quite common, used in many northern European cities, such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm and Paris.

So which works best? Well I’m not an expert in local government, but even the literature doesn’t have a clear conclusion. So the short answer is, we don’t know.

But I am interested in the functioning of central government, and we can think of the two models, the directly and indirectly-elected executive mayors as functional equivalents to the presidential and parliamentary systems at the national level.

And there is a long debate in political science about the relative success of the two systems at delivering democratic stability, human development, and a range of other indicators of a country’s success.

So which should we choose if we are to be guided by the relative performance of presidential or parliamentary systems? The presidential system, which is the system analogous to directly-elected mayor, has some advantages. Candidates are required to present a vision to the public. It puts power in the hands of one person, on the basis of popular election. That means the presidential system is clearer and appears fairer. We all know who we vote for; and the person who gets most votes becomes mayor.

Unlike in parliamentary systems, there is no messing about with coalition-building based on backroom deals that aren’t transparent and over which the voters have little control.

Much of the debate in parliamentary elections is about who will coalesce with whom, a debate that could be avoided in presidential-style systems. Instead the rival candidates for mayor could debate the issues facing Dubliners.

The presidential system also weakens the power of parties. Many people dislike parties, and regard them as gatekeepers of political ambition. With a presidential system new leaders can emerge without having to be sanctioned by a party. This is much less likely in a parliamentary system.

And at a time when people complain that government is unresponsive to their needs, and lacks leadership, the mayor could have clear lines of power to deal with the big problems.

A suitably empowered mayor might be able to deal with the housing crisis in a way that the local authorities, minister and agencies can’t.

The parliamentary system, that is the indirectly-elected mayor, however, has some advantages of its own.
One might seem a weak one, but it might be important. We are used to parliamentarianism – it’s in our political culture. Political culture governs how we behave and are expected to behave. It changes slowly and doesn’t always respond to institutional changes – perhaps not at all, or perhaps not in predictable ways. This is important because picking systems that we are used to means we are less likely to get nasty surprises.

A stronger argument in favour of parliamentarianism is the way it divides power.
Politics is meant to do at least two things. It should solve collective action problems: those that make us collectively better off if we are guided to behave in certain ways than if we were left to act individually. The classic example is fishing. Individually we have an incentive to extract as many fish as we possibly can from the seas. We would over fish, making us collectively worse off when fish stocks are depleted. So we are made better off being forced to restrict our fishing.
Politics is therefore also a mechanism for the resolution of conflicts, such as the fishing one.

In parliamentary systems the mechanism for the resolution of conflict is negotiation, and parties representing different interests compromise, strike deals and build consensus, embracing a wide range of views in the decision. This manifests itself in coalitions, with a formal opposition offering alternative policies.

In presidential systems conflict is resolved by the winner, who takes all. There is less incentive for compromise. You can build systems that restrict the power of the personal executive, and the separation of powers in the US means that we should not be as panicked about the prospect of a Trump presidency as we are. US presidents are severely restricted in their capacity for action.

But that separation of powers that restricts the power of a president or a directly-elected mayor can also mean that it is far less decisive than we envisaged. This can prompt deadlock, as we see in the US, and a certain systemic torpidity, which manifests itself in regime instability, where the only way to relieve the stasis is a coup, as we have frequently seen in Latin America.

So, unusually for political science, there is something of a consensus. Most agree that presidential systems work better, and in large-scale studies of the relative performance of presidential systems and parliamentary systems countries with parliamentary systems perform better on a range of measures. This is even the case when we control for the fact that most of Western Europe uses parliamentary systems.

So when we are thinking of the decision to introduce an executive mayor in Dublin, or any other Irish city, we should remember that we can achieve a strong, identi able executive mayor without the direct election that tends to increase conflict.

Eoin O’Malley