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Aaron McKenna: What are our coalition options after the next election?

Coalitions are the price of proportional systems such as ours: voters should have truthful information about potential alliances in order to make informed decisions.

Aaron McKenna

WE ARE, at most, 18 months from a general election, and the political parties are putting the head down for a long campaign. One feature so far has been political leaders ruling out this coalition and that coalition option. If an election were held tomorrow, with 158 seats on offer, almost every workable coalition deal is currently being taken off the table.

What this means in practice is political parties are going to spend the next 18 months lying about what they’d actually do after an election. When faced with the prospect of reneging on promises to do a deal or going back for another gruelling election, politicians tend to opt for the security of a five year mandate in hopes the electorate will just forget about it next time out.

It is a feature of coalition democracies that you vote for one thing and then get another, even if your favoured party makes it to government. Policies you would never agree to become a part of a Programme for Government that is a hybrid of often contradictory pre-election manifestos.

Ruling out coalitions   

In 2007, the Green Party leader Trevor Sargent categorically ruled out any coalition with Fianna Fáil. After the election was done, the Green Party duly went into government with them. Sargent did more than most politicians would, and resigned as party leader to let the deal go through. He didn’t think it broke his strict moral code to then take up a Junior Ministry in the administration he had forsworn.

Voters then got years of frankly bizarre government from the amateurs of the Green Party. When the country was falling down around our ears they were expending time and effort to generate controversy over dinky issues that appealed to their very narrow base. They at one stage held the economy to ransom by refusing to ratify the measures government was making unless they got concessions on vital matters like stag hunting.

Coalitions are the price of proportional systems such as ours, and for as long as we keep them versus a more decisive electoral method then hybrid government is an outcome we should expect. What we should not expect is that party leaders, in the run up to an election, should pretend that we live in a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all-system.

Enter Micheál Martin, who came out at the Fianna Fáil pre-season think in and told us that he is preparing to be the next Taoiseach from his position as leader of a party that is consistently polling in the 20-something per cent range. He then went on to rule out coalition with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. It sounds as if Martin is ringing up the company that made Gilmore for Taoiseach mugs to see if he can get the same deal.

The Labour party might be his preferred partner, but Joan Burton has ruled out doing a deal with Fianna Fáil. Even if Labour would deal, the two parties combined are unlikely to return a majority of the 158 seats on offer next time.

The government has economic fair winds behind it, but the chances of it being returned as a straight Fine Gael-Labour coalition are small.

What if we held a general election tomorrow? 

If a general election were held tomorrow on the latest Sunday Business Post/RedC poll numbers, Fine Gael would return 56 seats and Labour just three according to the political geographer Adrian Kavanagh. Their situation will improve between now and the election so long as economic growth keeps up, but it is a stretch to see them add the 20 seats required to even scrape a majority.

Neither party is likely to see their record 2011 performances repeated in the near future. They both got major boosts, if only from the fact that Fianna Fáil was so transfer-toxic last time out. Every second term government loses support, and the smaller coalition party tends to get absolutely creamed by the electorate. Fine Gael will not get within sight of the line of overall majority, and Labour will not be able to just get them over it.

Kavanagh’s analysis reckons Fianna Fáil will return 32 seats, Sinn Fein 37 and independents and others some 30 seats.

The only straight up workable coalitions from a numbers perspective would be Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil (88), or Fine Gael/Sinn Fein (93) – which stretches credulity even further than the civil war parties forming a union. After that you’re into three party coalitions supported by independents or smaller parties, like the Greens if they made it back or the likes of the Socialists. As the last government proved, these characters can be inherently unreliable when push comes to shove.

Even if someone can scrape together a coalition, such as Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein with Labour, who perhaps win a few more seats, and some other rag tag; security becomes an issue. Governments lose members over time – to European elections, political defections on local issues, and deaths.

Brian Cowen brought in the Troika at a time when his majority in the Dáil was less than the number of outstanding by-elections, some waiting several years to be held and all of which he was going to lose to the opposition. The only reason he had any democratic legitimacy was because the other parties would have probably been forced to do much the same. There were occasions when it looked like the opposition would abstain from votes rather than collapse his government and have to go do it themselves.

One of the values of the current government is that it has a super majority, and so it could afford to lose up to 30 members overboard and continue uninterrupted. The uniquely difficult economic choices it has had to make has seen it lose people, but so, too, have issues like abortion that can come up at any time.

A coalition that just about manages to get there, or that relies on independent votes to keep it in power, is inherently unstable and prone to making contradictory policy. Such a government also tends to build very nice roads in odd places, at great expense, for some reason. It is less than ideal.

Let’s get real

Instead of trying to pretend, like Micheál Martin, that they’re going to win the election and govern unassisted with poll numbers in the mid-20s, parties ought to be setting out the realistic parameters of the deals they might do post-election. We know that FG/Lab will work together, that’s a given. But if Labour won’t work with FF, and FF won’t work with FG, and the voters don’t oblige them with a majority, what exactly is their answer to the Rubik’s Cube challenge?

The Shinners are the elephant in the room, and there is a very real possibility that they will carve out an even larger slice of the pie for themselves – particularly at the expense of independents – if they look like they could win enough to go into government. People vote for independents when they’re disaffected, and then switch to a party when they reckon it can get something done.

Their problem is that nobody else wants to do business with them. But for the three other main parties to then rule out doing business with one another stretches the imagination as to what could happen after the next election – 1980s back-to-back polls? That did a lot to cement our economic stability, alright.

We’re too far out to lock the precise outcomes and are just speculating at this point as to what options exist. But another post-election shedding of ‘red lines’ is too obvious for voters to not call parties out on. They should be outlining the conditions under which they would do agreements, in pre-election Programme for Government style bartering. Not voting pacts, as we saw in 2007 from FG/Lab, but some indication for voters at least that if we got FG/FF, what it would look like.

Denying the possibility that it could ever happen isn’t credible. So tell us how it could look, so we can make informed decisions.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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