15 June, 2008

Ireland's Berlusconi?

As you know, the Lisbon Treaty has been rejected by Irish voters in a referendum. This has happened despite the treaty being backed by something like 90% of the members of the Dáil, Ireland's directly elected parliamentary chamber. European treaty referendums have always seen a higher proportion of No voters than votes in the Dáil. This disconnect is even more apparent now that the treaty has been soundly rejected in a referendum with a relatively high turn-out.

One thing that was suggested about the No vote on Thursday was that people were expressing their distrust of the Irish political establishment. This may well be the case, and even if people voted on a careful weighing up of the proposals contained in the treaty, you would have to think that No voters must be somewhat dissatisfied with a political establishment that has solidly endorsed Lisbon. Ireland is, however, parliamentary democracy, and it was only last year that the Irish electorate voted in the people they now so distrust. It could be that events since the election have led to a massive erosion of trust in our political elite. My suspicion, though, is that a great many people do not really see elections as having anything to do with producing a government. Ireland has a constituency-based electoral system. My feeling is that many Irish people vote for local characters they either have a fondness for or whom they think will bring in cargo for the area or for them personally.

Lisbon's failure nevertheless suggests a considerable degree of dissatisfaction with Ireland's political elite. It may be that the country is ready for someone to tap that dissatisfaction. If that someone could make people register that it is in their power to remove the political elite, then it would be possible to mount an insurrectionary electoral campaign that would shatter the established pattern of Irish politics.

Declan Ganley of Libertas is surely the person best placed to ride the tiger. There were other players in the No campaign, but they were from fringe political movements that do not look like credible challengers for the political big time. Libertas, though, look like a political party in waiting, and it is striking how some of their posters seemed to campaign against the establishment ("Don't Trust Them!") as much as against the treaty. Ganley seems not to have ruled out the idea of running for public office, so maybe we will next year be seeing Libertas try to establish an electoral base.

People tend to think of populism as something you get in funny Latin American countries. However, many European countries have in recent years seen the emergence of populist parties led by charismatic leaders railing against the cosy consensus that dominates their countries' political life. These populist movements have enjoyed different levels of success in different countries, but in several (including Poland, the Netherlands, & Austria) they have spent some time in government. In Italy, meanwhile, such a party is now the dominant party in that country's governing coalition. It is perhaps not for nothing that, writing in yesterday's Irish Times, Stephen Collins wrote of Declan Ganley becoming the "Silvio Berlusconi of Irish politics".

I am not entirely sure that Ganley's political prospects are quite so good. My impression is that populist challenges work best where a leader can easily affect a direct relationship with the electorate. This is easy in the kind of presidential systems they love in Latin America, where people can directly vote for the populist leader. It is also something you might see in countries with parliamentary government where the electorate votes for a nation-wide list that the leader can head. It is a bit more difficult in constituency based parliamentary systems. In such countries, a populist leader has to find credible candidates to run in the constituencies, and faces always the possibility that their party cohorts may put down local roots and not function loyally as their creatures. Ireland's electoral system therefore provides some institutional blocks to Ganley's sweeping to political power.


William said...

you would have to think that No voters must be somewhat dissatisfied with a political establishment that has solidly endorsed Lisbon. Ireland is, however, parliamentary democracy, and it was only last year that the Irish electorate voted in the people they now so distrust.

I think you're overplaying the contradiction here. It's perfectly sensible for the Irish electorate to trust the government to run Ireland, where the people can hold their feet to the fire as necessary (thanks to the highly constituency-based system you describe). But that trust needn't extend to the institutional decisions they make about how to run the EU. All the decisions about the treaty are taken at some remove from the electorate and it's legitimate for the electorate to feel they have less influence, through the political establishment, on those decisions than they do about, say, new bus routes.

I like my interpretation better, too, because it implies that the Irish people do know what they're doing when they vote, which is I think borne out by history; governments here don't in general change because of the unpopularity of individual TDs, they change because of the unpopularity of the government.

In your assessment of who's best placed to ride the populist tiger (if there is one) you seem to have left out Sinn Fein. That would have been unthinkable before the last election, which just shows how things change. I think the eclipse of Sinn Fein shows just how little appetite there really is for populism in Ireland.

Ian said...

SF don't fit my model - they are very much a party, rather than a vehicle for a populist leader.

On balance, I am happier sticking with the idea that people are idiots as a way of explaining why they vote against EU treaties negotiated by the government they elected.