June 18, 2007

Ireland has a government.  We didn't have one for awhile.  Not for three weeks, since the election, or possibly seven weeks, from when the election was called.  I'm not entirely sure.  I didn't want to mention it previously because it seemed like it might be a good time for an outside power with nothing else on its schedule to invade the Celtic Tiger.  Might be a nice acquisition for some militarized country with a rotten economy, like North Korea, or Burma.  But too late, we've got a government now; we're safe.

Safe from outside invasion, anyway, if not necessarily outselves.  Even after nine and a half years in Ireland, I don't quite get the political system.  That's ok, though, because Irish people don't get the American political system either.  Our mutual misunderstanding creates a mutual amnesty. But let me try to describe it as I understand it.

Seven weeks ago, the sitting Taoiseach (Irish equivalent of the British Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern, called an election.  At that point, apparently, the Dail Eireann (Irish Parliament) dissolved.  "How can they dissolve?" I asked my partner, Fred.  "Does that mean that Bertie's running everything on his own now?  Or is it Bertie and the Ministers?  But, since the Ministers are all members of the Dail, aren't they dissolved?  Wait a second, Bertie himself is a member of the Dail–is he dissolved?" 

Not only did I get no answer to these pertinent questions, but no one else in the country seemed to be asking them.  There were no panicked newspaper articles or biting pundit commentaries on the fact that Ireland was floating adrift, ungoverned, Dail-less.  The only coverage was on the election itself, a ploy, I believe, to distract the masses from the fact that, technically, we could now do whatever we pleased.  Who would stop us?  The gardai?  With no Minister for Justice empowering them?  What could the Gardai do? 

Irish people did not, however, take this opportunity to run amok (or, no more amok than usual on a Saturday night in Dublin city center when the pubs let out).  Instead, they focused calmly on the upcoming election.  Imagine it if you can: a 3 1/2 week election cycle.  Dissolved, free from governing, and on the campaign trail for only 3 1/2 heady weeks.  The media and candidates were in a frenzy.  The governing coalition, Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats–PDs (both of whom would be liberal to Americans, but are conservative to Irish people) seemed to be in trouble. 

Bertie's finances were an issue.  Way back when, in the midst of divorce proceedings, he got money from friends.  Kinda sorta friends.  People who gave him money, anyway, out of the goodness of their hearts, apparently, to tide him over a tough time.  Sounds like friends.  Unless they weren't friends at all, but people who were taking the long view and helping a rising party star for future payoffs in political favors of an undetermined nature.  Hard to say. 

The storied opposition, Fine Gael, hit hard (historical note: Fianna Fael and Fine Gael are the parties descended from the civil war, the Republicans and the Free Staters, membership in which is passed down the generations).  Their party leader, Enda Kenny, generally acknowledged to have the best hair on the campaign trail, felt his moment coming.  The rural west would rise and reclaim power from the slick Dubs who'd been running the country to suit their high-class business friends for the last ten years.  Back to the people.  That was the plan. 

Oh, there are other parties too.  In a system of proportional representation, everyone gets a share.  No one gets an outright majority (or, very infrequently does someone get an outright majority) so everyone has to bargain.  In addition to the PDs, the Labour party, the Greens, Sinn Fein, the Socialists and the independents could all claim a wee wedge of power.  Labour was hoping to ride in with Fine Gael.  The PDs were hoping to hang in with Bertie.  Sinn Fein was hoping for respectability.  The Greens were hoping for relevance.  The independents were hoping to win loot for their constituencies.  The Socialists were hoping to keep their seat so as to continue niggling whoever was in power.

Election night in a PR system is so much more fun than in a majority system. With proportional representation, you can vote for more than one candidate, in order of preference.  Heck, you can vote for them all! Just list them down the ballot, one-nine, or one-fifteen, however many are running.  You don't have to feel badly about excluding anyone from their shot at the Dail. The more candidates there are, and the more transferred votes, the longer the count.  And a long count is part of the fun. 

To begin the count, the party stalwarts muster at the appointed county location with supplies of bottled water and the knowledge of a long night ahead.  First, they figure out how many votes it will take to win a seat.  This is the number of votes cast, divided by the number of seats available, plus one.  Then the first preferences are set out in piles by candidate.  If anyone gets the number of votes to win a seat in the first count, they are deemed elected.  A cheer goes up, and the candidate is set upon by her (or his) zealous supporters for the obligatory, dignity-damaging shoulder hoist (some supporters add the dignity-shattering shoulder bounce, the TD-elect clinging on gamely, expression shifting between panic and bravado).

But here it gets tricky.  Elected candidates transfer their excess votes.  So if Candidate A wins her seat with 1567 votes, but she only needed 1487, the excess 180 votes go to the second preference on those ballots.   Astute readers will right now be saying "hey, but the second preferences on those excess 180 could be completely different from the second preferences on the first 1487.  I mean, if they were counted in a different order, the result could be completely different."  That's right!  That's why the party tries to control at least the first two preferences, entreating its supporters to put all of their candidates at the top of ballot, 1,2 and sometimes 3. Party loyalists vote the party line.  More independently minded voters try to liven up the system with unlikely 1-2 combos like Fianna Fail-Green Party, or Progressive Democrat-Sein Finn.

After the second preference transfers are distributed, there is a second count.  If no additional candidates are elected on the second count, the poor schmuck with the least amount of votes is deemed a loser, and his or her second preference votes are distributed.  And there's a third count.  And on it goes, until the number of seats available are filled.  Sometimes the county runs out of votes before it fills its seats, and people who don't quite make the number needed are deemed elected.  Sometimes there is a recount, which, in a PR system, means another all-nighter, and the risk of a very different result.

It's fun to see how the different counties approach the count.  Here in Wicklow, the count was held in what appeared to be an ancient school gym.  The party head spoke from the middle of the room, amidst tables, mingling counters, empty water bottles and general debris.  She held the microphone somewhat unsteadily, and gave the count in hesitant Irish, then hesitant English.  At one point it appeared a pile of ballots had been lost.  The counters were not going to get out of there any time soon.

In Galway, however, the count results were delivered by a glam woman in a suit, in front of a blue backdrop with the county seal.  It looked more than a little like the White House press room.  She knew her Irish, too.  Well they would, in Galway.  No lost ballots there.  However, as they seemed to have about fifteen people on the ballot, that count, too, would be going on long into the night.

They're proposing electronic voting in Ireland, but people don't want it.  How boring to know the result immediately, without the drama of multiple counts; all-nighters; lost piles of ballots; found piles of ballots; game stuttering in Irish; interior shots of of large, drafty, chaotic locales; and the forced hoisting of a winning candidate after each dramatic round of counting. With electronic voting, would all the winners get hoisted at once?  I can see some safety issues arising there.

I suppose I should mention that the end of the voting and the counting does not result in a government.  It only gives us the potential players.  This year's election gave the primary partner in the governing coalition, Fianna Fail, a solid lead in seats.  Unfortunately, it decimated Fianna Fail's coalition partner, the PDs, returning only two of the eight to office.  It appears the voters took out whatever anger they had at the existing government on the minor coalition party.  That Bertie.  How does he do it?

Meanwhile, the other major party in Irish politics, Fine Gael, gained seats in the election.  But not enough to pose a serious challenge to the sitting government.  Still, there was an outside chance that Enda Kenny and his hair could lead a Fine Gael coalition government if Bertie could not persuade any of the other parties to join him.  Right.  Let's see, would a small party prefer to be one of many in a wide-ranging, unwieldy, coalition of the parties the voters did not prefer, or the kingmaker in coalition with the party the voters clearly did prefer?

This was as obvious a choice to the Green party as it would be to anyone, and when Bertie called, they answered, eventually, and with a bit of hand-wringing and soul-searching, as it meant they'd have to agree to a highway through Tara (well, nearly through it) and some icky pro-business policies but, what the heck.  It's better to be in power than out of power.  They got two ministries.  And two junior ministries.  The new Green ministers were photographed riding to the Dail on their bicycles.  Life is good.

Wily Bertie, however, also struck a deal with the independents, which include my favorite politician, Jackie Healey Rae, a West Kerry man complete with cap and wellingtons (though I believe he sheds the latter when on the Dail floor) given to incomprehensible pronouncements on preserving the rural way of life through things like smoking, drink-driving, and rampant development on rural beauty spots (when questioned on the feasibility of building on some of Kerry's steeper mountains, Healey Rae points to the example of Hawai'i, where they've built scores of houses over Honolulu, stacked one on the other, right up the pali.  He's right.  It can be done).   

With the independents in his group, Bertie has neutralized both of his coalition partners.  Neither can walk.  Or, either of them can, but Bertie still has enough people in the coalition to remain in power, so walking only means they're out and he's still in.  I suppose it's possible that the Greens and the independents could threaten to walk together and bring the government down, but it's hard to imagine an issue that would simultaneously inflame both Jackie Healey Rae and Trevor Sargent.  In fact, it's a lot easier to imagine Jackie beating Trevor over the head with a shillelagh than it is to imagine the two of them walking arm in arm out the door with a pleading Bertie at their back. 

So what does it all mean?  In a robust economy where Irish people have gobs and gobs of money for the first time in history–money they're spending avidly on SUVs, second homes in the sun, powerboats, mansions, 250,000 euro birthday parties for their 21 year old daughters, and the like–people think the government under which this has occurred is fine, thanks very much.   So Bertie may have had a few odd financial dealings.  Ah, sure, haven't we all? 

Ireland is prosperous, if not exactly happy, but happiness may not be far off.  Young Irish people are growing up in a wealthy, confident country, not the guilt-ridden, fear-driven, theocracy under which their parents were raised.  Young people from other countries–the Baltic states, the eastern european countries, China, Africa–are coming here to escape their own blighted histories and move forward in confidence.  With Ireland's diaspora so recent and painful, Irish people are trying hard to welcome the newcomers with good hearts.  There is some resentment, but mostly a secret delight that people now want to come here, the place from which millions once fled in misery.  Life is good.  Fianna Fail is good.  Bring it on for another five years.