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Column: ‘Politics across the Atlantic should make us consider our own system’

The Irish and US political systems are different – but both have their good points, writes Professor Maura Adshead.

Maura Adshead

WHEN WE ARE looking at the US and Irish systems of government, we are looking at two completely different blueprints for government. In comparative politics, the range of institutional options for democratic states is limited. With the exception of Switzerland, the majority of  existing democracy is either presidential – like  the United States or parliamentary, like Ireland and most of continental Europe.

These essential differences in the design features of the system of government make it difficult to compare Irish and US elections, per se. The terms of reference are different, and the impact of a presidential election upon the US political system is quite different to the impact that a change of Taoiseach makes to the Irish system of government. But why this should be so, and the impact that it has on our national system of politics, is worth considering.

Electoral systems

The US electoral system is designed so that there should be overall support for the President, not only in numbers, but across the country as a whole. Presidential candidates will typically place a low campaign priority on states they can easily win or are most likely to lose – focusing all their efforts on the decisive swing states.

The Irish electoral system are almost the complete opposite to this. The transferable element to our Proportional Representation system – in other words, our ability to rank our preferences down the list of candidates – creates a quite different electoral competition. In our system, candidates need to go out and knock on doors and they need to appeal to those undecided voters in the middle of the road, whose second and third preferences may make the difference in the final allocation of votes. This electoral system drives candidates into the centre and contributes sometimes to the sense of frustration that there is not much difference between our main parties. It is the design feature that underpins our capacity for coalition government and negotiated ‘programmes for government’ between different political parties in government.

Changing deckchairs on the Titanic

On the one hand, this can lead to a sense of frustration with Irish party politics, contributing to that age old cliché that ‘changing government is like changing deckchairs on the Titanic’. The mutual dependence between the government and legislature means that in Ireland executive power is underpinned by political support in the Dáil, which typically lasts as long as the government does. This gives the Irish executive significant governmental capacity: alongside the British and French systems of government, the Irish executive branch of government is considered to be one of the most powerful in Europe, by virtue of its ability to control the parliamentary agenda, dissolve the parliament at will, and declare elections in a time of its own choosing. If Barack Obama had enjoyed half as much executive power as Enda Kenny does, we would have witnessed a significantly more radical reform of US healthcare and might already have indirectly benefited from a more decisive and substantial US economic stimulus and recovery plan.

Irish executive power is evidently much stronger than that of President of US: the current series of decisive government decisions regarding the budget attest to Irish governmental capacity. Still, however, the co-dependence of our executive and legislature means that we can rest assured that this level of executive authority would not proceed were it not supported by a majority in parliament. Whether the support is luke warm or abstentionist, the policies that we are being subjected to at present represent the tacit will of the majority of the people that we elected.

Tiny bit left, tiny bit right

Accountability for executive governmental action rests ultimately with us and our electoral system ensures that we are governed by the poltics of consensus. This government is enacting the bail-out agreement of the last government. There are to be no radical shifts between governments in Ireland. A tiny bit left, a small bit to the right. The 2011 election demonstrated this.

In this respect, there is something quite refreshing about watching US politics and seeing the clash of opposites in a system where there is scant rationale to play to the middle ground – Obama above all others should have learned this lesson. Yet the sad irony is that most ordinary people do fall in the middle ground and they are not being represented.

Our system is able to produce a consensus: we all want better medical care; we all want the elderley to be looked after; we all want children to be protected; we’d all like more gardai to tackle crime. Our arguments are chiefly about how we will deliver the things that we all want. And in this dimension, we are somewhat handicapped by an electoral  system that places more emphasis on the local and the personal good, than it does on the national and the common good.

But when we look across the Atlantic to the most conspicuous current example of how government design conclusively circumscribes political possibilities, it should prompt us to think more clearly about the impact of our own system design on our own politics. Unlike the Americans, we have a chance to join in a national conversation about this in the upcoming constitutional convention. Ask the Americans now sitting in the dark on the upper floors of their flooded buildings if they had a chance to influence how their politics works would they take it?

Maura Adshead is Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick.

Read: USA 2012: Irish thoughts on an American election>

Column: Europeans saying Obama has to win? It makes me want to scream>

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Maura Adshead

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