The Irish people went to the polls to elect a new government on 26 February. Finally, ten weeks later on 6 May they got one. Incumbent Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny has been in a caretaker role as the leader of Fine Gael, the largest party in the Dail (Parliament) since the election, and will now lead a minority government with an agreement on confidence and supply with the next largest party, Fianna Fail. But the two parties, which now have few fundamental ideological differences, have fought each other for almost a century, literally in the Civil War of the 1920s. And it’s that historic enmity which has prevented formation of a German-style ‘grand coalition’, and which provides lessons for New Zealand.
Ireland’s electoral system is quite different to New Zealand’s, but its outcomes are similar. The Irish system is based on multi-member constituencies with preferential voting, meaning that each new Dail contains a plethora of parties, and the major parties rarely have sufficient TDs (MPs) to govern in their own right. So far, much like New Zealand since 1996. But because Ireland’s parliament is completely constituency-based, it also produces large numbers of independents and representatives of micro-parties, further complicating coalition-building.
Traditionally, Irish governments have been formed by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael going into coalition with one of the larger minor parties. That role in recent decades has most often been taken by the Irish Labour Party, making it the ‘kingmaker’, similar to New Zealand First in 1996 and 2005. The Irish system worked fine for decades, when Fianna Fail and Fine Gael each had votes in the range of 25-50 per cent, and the coalition partners took them over the hurdle of 50 per cent of the TDs. But this year the Irish electorate, along with many in Europe and around the world (most recently Spain and Austria), turned against the establishment parties, which for the first time ever received less than 50 per cent of the vote between them. And Labour lost two-thirds of its 2011 vote share, with its leader, Joan Burton, only just retaining her Dail seat, in keeping with the norm of coalition politics, where the junior partner is eviscerated by an unhappy electorate (see the Liberal Democrats last year in the UK, the Free Democrats in Germany in 2013, and New Zealand First in 1999 and 2008).
In the first Dail vote for Taoiseach on March 10, Enda Kenny got the most votes, but was well short of a majority. Since then, he has been wooing various independents, but it became obvious last month that he would also have to do some kind of a deal with Fianna Fail to form a stable government. The third-largest party, Sinn Fein, is out of the running, thanks to its links to the violence of the past in Northern Ireland.
So the most obvious solution, a grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, has been under negotiation in recent weeks. But the problem is, the two parties have never worked together, and only once, in the late 1980s, have they agreed a temporary truce to allow a minority (Fianna Fail) government. As opinion polls during the short (three-week) February campaign showed a loss of support for the establishment parties, and an increase for fringe groupings and independents, several participants talked about ‘an end to civil war politics’. But another poll during the campaign showed only nine per cent of the electorate thought there was any chance of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail grand coalition. The difficulties in getting the two parties to agree to an arrangement for a viable government show that such an end is still a way off. The best they could come up with was the confidence and supply agreement, with Fianna Fail remaining in opposition despite a raft of policy concessions from Fine Gael, and the granting of ministerial positions to several independents, to give Enda Kenny the numbers to remain Taoiseach.
So what can New Zealand learn from the Irish experience? Government formation, with or without formal coalition agreements, has been relatively stress-free in New Zealand, not least after the past three elections because of National’s huge lead over all other parties. But what happens when that high tide of electoral support starts to recede? A large part of National’s recent electoral success has been the personal popularity of John Key, and smooth economic sailing, largely thanks to China’s appetite for our primary exports. If Key goes and China’s slowdown turns into a slump, what happens then? If National loses support and it doesn’t flow to Labour, but rather a resurgent New Zealand First, Winston Peters is sure to try to eke out every policy concession he can, some of which may not sit easily with either major party’s market-friendly stance. So would National and Labour then be prepared to break the mold of New Zealand politics and consider a grand coalition?
Based on precedent, there’s no reason they shouldn’t. After all, New Zealand adopted MMP from Germany, which has a grand coalition between the centre-right Christian Democrats and centre-left Social Democrats now, as it did in 2005-2009, and for 3 years in the 1960s. But while the two major parties of Germany have been in electoral competition for more than 70 years, they have an even larger ideological commonality: a determination never to allow even a hint of the horrors of Nazism, and complete opposition to any party with links to any form of totalitarianism. Therefore both treat the successor party to the old East German SED, Die Linke, as a pariah, and have set up a ‘cordon sanitaire’ to keep it out of government.
Part of the reason Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have at least talked to each other in recent weeks is because neither is prepared to deal with the most obvious party to give them the numbers: Sinn Fein. And this is where we get to the foundations of grand coalitions. They are not formed out of empathy for the other partner, but rather enmity towards an even more disliked alternative. But without a past history of co-operation, it is very hard for traditionally antagonistic parties to come together in coalition.
So if in the future New Zealand is faced with an electoral impasse like Ireland is now, here are some lessons:
- Put aside history, especially of conflicts only experienced by the grandparents or even more distant ancestors of today’s voters and politicians.
- Work to establish trust between the two negotiating partners, even if there hasn’t been much of it before.
- Eliminate the negative of policy differences, and accentuate the positive of policy commonalities.
- And finally, but perhaps most importantly, don’t let egos, especially of leaders, get in the way of a deal.
With National’s continued dominance of the polls in New Zealand, and the likelihood of Winston Peters’s retirement increasing with each election, an Irish-style impasse doesn’t look likely here, at least for the foreseeable future. But in politics, anything is possible, and if it does happen, New Zealand can draw on the recent experience of a country on the other side of the world with a similar-sized population, parliamentary makeup and economy.
Mark Boyd is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research analyses television news coverage of New Zealand election campaigns, comparing it to coverage of recent campaigns overseas, including Ireland’s. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org