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June 5 elections: likely voting patterns

All elections are likely to be determined by how the parties are doing in the Dáil but voters for Fianna Fáil discern between types of election.

Elections take place on June 5 to more than 900 seats in various types of local councils, 12 seats in the European Parliament as well as two seats in Dáil Eireann. Success for the op­position in both by-elections may well have direct consequences for the stabil­ity of the government although as long as the Green party remains in government, its majority seems safe. What is certain is that the local and European Parliament elections will also be analysed and inter­preted largely for their significance with respect to national politics. Most impor­tantly, these will be seen as indicating the national standing of the parties in much more concrete terms than can be given by opinion polls. Is Fianna Fáil really as unpopular as recent TNS/Irish Times and Red C/Sunday Business Post polls have suggested? Is Fine Gael at support levels not seen since the heyday of Garret Fitzgerald? And is Labour once again win­ning the sort of support that Dick Spring squandered in 1992? A result which re­inforces the findings of recent polls will have pundits pondering a range of pos­sibilities, from the downfall of the cur­rent government to the long-awaited rea­lignment of the whole party system. Of course these campaigns will tell us some­thing about morale in the various parties, and who wins the seats, particularly the local seats, will have implications for the candidate pool at forthcoming general elections. However inappropriate it may seem to many people, local councils still provide the apprenticeship for aspiring national politicians.

How justified is this essentially na­tional interpretation of these elections? Do votes to send three representatives to Brussels from the Ireland-East constitu­ency, let alone those to determine the make up of Westmeath County Council really carry significant implications for national politics as a whole? There is a strong argument to be made that all such elections are determined primarily by the state of party competition in the main arena of politics here – the poli­tics of government and opposition in the Dáil. There are several reasons for this. One is that the campaigns themselves will place these elections in the context of national politics. Opposition parties will all call on voters to give the govern­ment a bloody nose, to use the opportu­nity of a vote for a seat on Louth County Council, or even Drogheda UDC, to ex­press their views on government policy, such as the treatment of the banks, the so-called ‘pension levy’ on public em­ployees, or the dithering over medical cards for the elderly. There will also be the hint that such behaviour could even unseat the government, or at least lead Fianna Fáil to change the men and wom­en at the top.

Results in ‘mid-term’ elections in Ireland, since 1967.

A second reason is that the same par­ties fight all elections and the results at national level look much the same re­gardless of the type of election and the responsibilities and performance of the bodies being elected. If we summarise results since the late 1960s, Fianna Fáil has always been the largest party in gen­eral, local and in European Parliament elections; Fine Gael has come second, usually by a distance, and Labour a poor third. Regardless of the type of election, Labour and Fine Gael have won very similar levels of support over the last 40 years or so, with Labour getting 11-12% in each contest while Fine Gael aver­ages 31% in local and general elections as against 27 in European Parliament elections. Fianna Fáil does not fit this pattern so well, averaging 44% in general elections, but 39% in local elections and only 35% in European Parliament elec­tions. One reason for that party’s relative weakness in local and European Parlia­ment elections is that Fianna Fáil has generally been in government, and lo­cal and European Parliament elections have taken place ‘mid term’. If these elections are referendums on the gov­ernment, Fianna Fáil has usually been in the firing line. In its rare periods in opposition, the gap between its general election and local elec­tion support has been smaller. When Fine Gael was in govern­ment its mid-term election sup­port fell significantly below that won in the previous general election. However, Fianna Fáil’s European Parliament perform­ance is almost always bad, the party dropping 9% below its previous general election sup­port level when in government and 8% when in opposition. The 1999 elections were exceptional as Fianna Fáil, although in govern­ment, maintained the level of support it won in the 1997 general election. Significantly, however, Fianna Fáil was extraordinarily popular at the time: al­most 60% were satisfied with the gov­ernment and 67% of voters were satis­fied with Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach. These levels of satisfaction were com­mon in 1997-2002, but rarely seen at any previous, or subsequent, time.

A third reason is the evidence from many countries showing how party choice in sub-national elections is typically determined by matters which are outside the competence of the bodies being elected. This is not always the case. It can be shown that voters in federal systems can make distinctions between what is done by their state governments and what is done by the federal government. However, where this is so, in the US and Canada, the political systems are long-established and there are media environments that facilitate public understanding of different compe­tences. In contrast, there is evidence that electoral choice to the new Scot­tish parliament is determined more by matters that are the preserve of the Westminster parliament than those which are the preserve of the assembly in Edinburgh. Choice in European Parliament elections has been much studied across the EU and the evidence is clear that voters make little distinction between par­ties based on the competences of the European Parliament as against their national parliaments.

The nature of local government in Ireland does not facilitate a form of politics that is oriented towards local decision-making and accountability. Lo­cal councils have relatively few powers, and even fewer sources of funding that are independent of national govern­ment. Most people know that we have a Fianna Fáil-led government, but it is unlikely that anything like so many know how majorities in local councils are constructed; in fact, apart from voting for local mayors, council votes typically show a much less rigid party system than we are used to in the Dáil. This makes it hard for voters to hold parties to account for local affairs. In the case of the European Parliament, this lack of collective accountability is even more severe. Although the Euro­pean Parliament is a very significant actor in EU decision making, most vot­ers have a very limited appreciation of what goes on there.

“The evidence is clear that voters make little distinction between parties based on the competences of the European Parliament as against their national parliaments.”

There are counter arguments to sof­ten this predominantly national vision. Party campaigns are not solely nation­al. Even leaving aside the fact that the Fianna Fáil logo seems to have gone missing on the posters of many of its nominees on this occasion, candidates do give a lot of attention to local mat­ters in their campaigns. Some exhort the voter to ‘vote local’, perhaps dis­missing national politics. Non-party candidates are more successful in local elections than in general elections. It is also a mistake to think that because a party’s vote across different elections is stable, the same people are voting for it. In a recent book on local elections in Ireland [All Politics is Local], Liam Weeks and Aodh Quinlivan point out that there has been a very low correlation between Fianna Fáil’s local and general election support at Dáil constitu­ency level – as if it is not winning votes from the same people in each contest. In contrast, the Fine Gael vote is much more stable. It is possible that Fianna Fáil picks up general election votes from people who would not support it in other elections, because they see it as best able to deliver stable government in the Dail, a point the party has always emphasized, even after Charles Haughey aban­doned its anti-coalition stance.

We certainly do see voters switching parties at local and Euro­pean elections, returning to the fold at the next general election. Evidence from the 2002-2007 Irish election study, which interviewed the same people up to five times across this period, showed those who voted Fi­anna Fáil in the general election of 2002 were more than twice as likely as those who voted Fianna Fáil in the local elections of 2004 to support that party again in 2007. Even among those who voted for the party in 2002 and 2007, a substantial minority cast their favours elsewhere in 2004. The same is true when we substitute the Euro­pean Parliament election for the local election. We might see this as reveal­ing a homing instinct among mem­bers of the Fianna Fáil tribe, but it may also indicate a separation of the different sorts of elections by some voters, who select different horses for different courses. The voters themselves claim candidate factors are more important in local elections than general elections, although the difference is not large. This may pro­vide some small crumbs of comfort for the embattled members of The Republican Party when the results are declared.

Michael Marsh is professor of comparative political behaviour and dean of the faculty of arts, humanities and social sciences in TCD