19 February, 2011
Irish Election Posters
There is a general election campaign taking place in Ireland at the moment, with the country due to vote on Friday the 25th of February. For no obvious reason I have taken to photographing election posters and created Flickr and Facebook albums of them. I have been rather surprised by reactions to them, with people from outside Ireland saying that they do not really have anything equivalent for elections in their country. Now, some places do not have election posters stuck up on lamp posts and telegraph poles, but it is the highly personalised nature of Irish election posters that most strikes others as unusual – apparently you do not normally get photographs of election candidates on posters in other countries.
I was surprised by this. Ireland is not the only country in the world with constituency based elections where people vote for individual candidates, so I would have expected that elections elsewhere would at least partly be run on the basis of local candidates trying to attract a purely personal vote. This does not seem to be the case. That leaves me wondering what is different about Ireland that makes election campaigning work this way.
One thing here is political culture. Irish people seem to want something of a personal relationship with their political representatives, so it is unsurprising that we get posters with the candidate’s grinning face.
Another factor often mentioned is Ireland’s electoral system – the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. In this unusual system, people give a first preference to their favourite candidate, a second preference to the next, and so on. Candidates who receive more votes than they need to be elected have some of them transferred to other candidates, while people who have received too few to be elected are eliminated and their votes also redistributed. To get elected it is often necessary for a candidate to attract lower preferences from people voting for other candidates, including from candidate from other parties. This makes it worth their while trying to establish name recognition for themselves. It is also useful for a candidate to cultivate a sense of their own political nice-ness, so that they stand a chance of attracting transfers.
I am a bit sceptical of the idea that Ireland’s electoral system rigidly determines how politics works here, so my feeling is that the political culture argument is more important as a factor in driving our highly personalised election campaigning. I reckon that even if we had plurality voting (as seen in Britain, Canada, and the USA, among others) we would still be looking at the cheery faces of candidates from our lamp-posts. But there is no real way of telling. In any case, explaining things by reference to political culture is problematic, as you then have to start wondering what causes political culture to take the form it does.