Irish election 2016

Ireland’s 2016 general election will be held 26 February. The current coalition of Fine Gael and Labour is not doing well in the polls. However, neither is the main opposition party, Fianna Fail. The RTE seat projection currently has Fine Gael on 55 seats (based on just 28% of the vote), Labour on 13. Fianna Fail is barely holding off Sinn Fein for second place, 33 to 29 in the projection (20% and 18% in voters, according to the poll of polls).

The assembly size has been reduced. It was 165 in the last election (2011), but will be 157 in this one (not counting the seat of the Speaker). Fine Gael’s 2011 result was 46% of seats; they may not make it over 35% this time.

So worried is Fine Gael that it is “devising a risky battle-plan aimed at salvaging as many seats as possible,” according to the Independent. The plan is to ask senior members of the party to reduce their own personal vote by shifting votes to weaker co-partisan candidates.


Fine Gael is devising strategies in a series of constituencies, which involves divides of territory and asking loyal supporters to vote for one candidate over another in a particular area.

Although this tactic has often been used in the past, it hasn’t been employed in such large numbers before. And the decline in support levels make if far more difficult to pull off.


The article has a list of strong incumbents who are being asked to sacrifice voters, and notes that the party is attempting to use Facebook to target reliable voters who would shift.

Of course, all this vote-management reminds us that the Irish single transferable vote (STV) is not dramatically distinct from the old Japanese single non-transferable vote (SNTV). In either system, parties can be hurt, relative to the seats that their collective vote totals could deliver them under a list system, if their leading candidate obtains too large a share of the party’s total votes in a district. With votes overly concentrated on one candidate, the weaker ones could be eliminated too early to benefit from vote transfers from other candidates, including the co-partisan strongest one. (I assume this also implies that not enough voters for the leading candidate can be counted on to list co-partisans second. Otherwise there would be little need to manage first-preference votes in this manner.)


Labour is banking on “locking down” its traditional core vote of 10pc and its TDs coming ahead of the second Fine Gael candidate to benefit from transfers.

Yes, there is an advantage that small parties under STV have that is not available to such parties under SNTV. But for large parties, especially those with declining support, STV poses serious coordination challenges.

The seat projections, it should be noted, come with some grain of salt, because projecting seats under STV is hard.

29 thoughts on “Irish election 2016

  1. Thanks for bringing this to the blog, MSS. I’m new to the analysis of Irish STV and would like to know more about the extent and causes of preference leakage.

    For example, I’m seeing baseline leakage rates of about 30% (of observable transfers) in three historic US cases. Spikes in those rates are pretty clearly relatable to issues in local politics (e.g., housing desegregation).

    Also, Laver’s chapter in the 2000 book argues that the smaller parties do best by directing transfers pretty much anywhere but to the system’s largest party. How does this square with the analysis by Gallagher that you linked? It appears that Labour is the largest party, and it appears that the smaller parties are not effective in (or even trying to?) keep transfers away from it.



  2. A simple web search shows FG is largest. I’m still interested in knowing why voters desert FG or any other party with their lower rankings, though. Is this a “normal” discipline problem, or is it elite-directed in some way?


    • “[P]arties can be hurt, relative to the seats that their collective vote totals could deliver them under a list system, if their leading candidate obtains too large a share of the party’s total votes in a district.” If you are a proponent of STV as the only true form of PR, then this is a virtue. The method is meant to reward voters who believe in voting for candidates rather than parties. But the proponents’ account leaves out the fact that a lot of voting behavior is influenced by name recognition. How many Irish voters rank the leader of their preferred party first, because that’s the name they recognize, and then rank the leaders of other parties (presumably in order of ideological proximity), whose names they also recognize?

      Obviously, I’m guessing here. The Irish situation is a little surprising on other grounds, namely that voting behavior is much more partisan than voters themselves generally realize. So some explanation is needed.


      • “How many Irish voters rank the leader of their preferred party first, because that’s the name they recognize, and then rank the leaders of other parties (presumably in order of ideological proximity), whose names they also recognize?”

        I’d think that would be none, since the leaders of Irish political parties run in different constituencies. Or is that not what you meant?


    • FG is currently the biggest, but FF historically is. I am not sufficiently expert in Irish politics to say for sure, but the basic story is that FF would generally govern alone–not in 2016!–or the alternative would be some coalition or other multiparty arrangement. So you get “FF vs. the rest” preference exchanges. And then you also get personal voting (of course, it’s STV!), and not all voters for one candidate of a party necessarily would like any other candidates of that party more than they would like some candidate from another party.


  3. Interestingly, this sort of vote-management is almost never an issue in Australia’s “open-list” versions of STV (the Hare-Clark systems used in Tasmania and the ACT) because the candidates’ order is rotated within each party column. Empirically, this imposes a de facto threshold of around 2/3 of a quota to win seats (ie, around 11-12% now that Tasmania and the ACT have committed to uniform five-seaters for the near future).
    The party leader will usually poll a large surplus on first preferences but the other candidates are usually more evenly divided. The Irish/ Taiwanese (and formerly Japanese) tactic of telling supporters “Everyone surnames A to F, put O’Hara first” has never – as far as I can ascertain, anecdotally – caught on. Nor do post-election post-mortems focus on failure to vote-manage as a reason for a party missing out on a seat. (“Bad luck” in the Australian STV cases usually comes down to commiserating over an unlucky order of elimination. Having OPV-DM, ie OPV-5, rather than OPV-1, combined with rotated ballot order, makes it less likely that a party will suffer for standing either “too many” or “too few” candidates).
    In Northern Ireland and some Australian student unions, parties/ teams distribute how-to-vote tickets with the order of the candidates’ names rotated. Failure to split one’s supporters’ votes very equally is less fatal, of course, under STV-PR than under SNTV. Under STV-PR it might mean winning only two seats instead of an expected three out of five. Under SNTV, it could mean winning only one seat – or conceivably even zero – instead of an expected three out of five.


    • I’ve often thought about this particular divergence between Australia and Ireland. One of the reasons I’ve considered is the role that small legislatures play. Parties would surely place a high priority on making sure frontbenchers were reelected, and diverting votes away from those frontbenchers could be a risky strategy. In Ireland, most constituencies do not have a minister, just an incumbent, whose reelection chances could be more comfortably sacrificed for a risky strategy.


      • True, JD. While Ireland and the Australian Hare-Clark jurisdictions all use “STV-PR” – indeed, all use what I call “open-list STV-PR” (all right, you know what I mean) – the substantial differences in the details encourage Tasmanian and ACT parties to stand usually at least as many candidates as the district magnitude (DM). Sometimes one more (I once saw a Tasmanian ballot, from 1989 I think, where the Liberals had a ticket of eight candidates for the then seven seats in one district) but almost never fewer, at least for the serious parties.
        Irish parties, on the other hand, tend to run one candidate only in a constituency where they expect to win just one seat, and where they expect to win two or more, they run one more candidate than the expected number. Restricting the party slate in this way, plus vote-equalising, means ideally each of their nominees will poll something in the ballpark of a d’Hondt average on first preferences, thus keeping the maximum number of them continuing in the count to receive preference transfers from each other and from other parties’ candidates.
        The three factors I’d identify are:
        1. Ireland has fully OPV-1 (thanks by the way to Alan for this useful typology). The Australian Hare-Clark jurisdictions have OPV-DM. Not only does this largely remove the fear that running fewer than DM candidates will cause votes to be lost through exhaustion, it actively encourages parties to offer a full slate of candidates to stop their supporters having to give their fourth and fifth mandatory preferences to other parties.
        2. Irish candidates appear in a single column in alphabetical order, not grouped by party. Tasmanian and ACT Assembly candidates appear in party groups, very much like the “below the line” section of the mainland Upper House ballot-papers. If you want to vote for, say, the Labor Party it is very easy to number 1, 2, 3… down the Labor column. (Even if Labor offers six candidates for five seats, it is unlikely that any voters will stop at the statutory minimum and number only five of the candidates). The momentum is in favour of numbering all the candidates in the party team. By contrast, while Irish ballot-papers do show party labels (and even photos, I understand) one may have to range up and down the alphabetical list to make sure one has numbered all the Fine Gael candidates, if one wants to vote a Fine Gael ticket. (And if one has become accustomed to voting for four and only four Fine Gael candidates at previous elections, FG may be courting a split vote if it were to suddenly change to five candidates).
        3. Irish casual vacancies are filled by by-elections for Dáil Éireann and by pre-registered mini-party lists (one per candidate) for Ireland’s Euro-MPs. Even if you lost by only a dozen votes at the general election, that avails you nothing (in legal terms) should a casual vacancy later arise. By contrast, by-elections are never held in the ACT and almost never held in Tasmania. Tasmania has a reserve quorum for a by-election if no-one re-nominates, or of the countback winner doesn’t get 50% of a quota, or if the vacating MHA’s party leader requests a by-election (eg, if the countback were won by someone wholly unacceptable to the party that originally won that seat). The ACT doesn’t have that: if no-one re-nominates, the Assembly itself co-opts someone. As a result, a candidate who missed out narrowly at the general election has a very good chance of getting in later through a countback.


  4. Thanks, Tom. I was assuming before that leakage would be minimal, in which case it wouldn’t particularly matter whether all votes for a party went to one candidate or to many (so long as the one candidate received at least a quota).


  5. Henry: “I’d think that would be none, since the leaders of Irish political parties run in different constituencies. Or is that not what you meant?”

    I was assuming that in each constituency where a party had more than one TD, often only one of them would have a lot of name recognition. Saying it that way, it’s a lot less plausible than I thought.

    In the U.S., name recognition is a big factor (and a huge advantage for incumbents) because voters are often asked to vote on numerous offices at the same election. They know who they want for President and Senator but are much less informed about candidates for the local town council, sheriff and dog catcher. There’s more, but it’s off topic in this thread.


    • Due to district magnitude and party size, often FF has been the only party that has two incumbents in a district, other than a few specific cases in strongholds of FG. Of course, by virtue of doing unusually well in the last election, FG has more cases of incumbents competing over a smaller party pie.


      • Thanks. I’m not used to the idea that a party would choose, under STV, not to run a candidate for every seat. This thread is very helpful in explaining why.


  6. The terminology czar steps in: please let’s not refer to STV as having a “list”. That only confuses things. In electoral systems terms, I understand a “list” to be a set of candidates over which votes are pooled. STV is, by definition, not open list, but non-list.

    As Bob noted, the absence of a list is a virtue for proponents of STV. It is a vote-management headache for party leaders.


    • Hence my semi-ironic quotation marks… “Open-ticket” would be more accurate. The version of STV used in upper houses that sit on the mainland of Australia is very much “closed-ticket”, as in, any N seats won by a party’s team of candidates have always gone to the N candidates ranked highest on the ticket. That’s up there with the Knesset.


      • … and since non-list systems like STV can be “closed” in the sense that ranking by the party determines candidates’ electoral fate before a single ballot is cast, perhaps “closed-list” is too narrow a term for this sub-type of voting system?


      • Perhaps I missed the “semi” part of those semi-ironic quotation marks.

        Of those second-chamber Australian mainland examples, how many of them lack the above-the-line option? If there is such an option, and most voters use it, then it seems to me we really are talking about a de-facto list system (and a closed one, at that, as Tom’s second reply in this mini-thread notes).


      • They all have the ticket-voting option now. WA adopted PR, and SA changed from a list system to STV-PR, after the Feds had introduced tickets for the Senate. NSW on the other hand had, I think, three STV elections before adopting tickets – albeit with a very semi-optional form of optional preferential (10 or more preferences required for initially 15 vacancies). And the Senate had STV-PR without tickets – but with party-ranked columns and compulsory preferences (FPV-NC) – from 1948 to 1983. The latter produced a very high degree of party control (ie, all and only the N highest candidates on each Senate ticket won the N seats, but occasionally – Tasmania, I believe – their order of election varied). ATL ticket-voting has cemented this further but it was already high.


  7. Has there been any discernible difference in legislative activity/behaviour between different versions of STV? I mean things like party unity (in *voting*, party cohesion (differences in *opinion* between MPs) and factionalism, voting on particularistic spending (pork-barrel politics), defections from parties, voting and other activities in committees, individual legislative initiatives (private bills or amendments).

    For that matter, has there been any discernible difference in such variables between STV and other electoral systems operating in an otherwise similar institutional context? I have yet to hear much about this question, while *SNTV’s* tendencies in practice are (I think) well-established and well-known.

    I do know the following of Irish MPs, but cannot see (or don’t know enough to see) similar patterns in other STV jurisdictions:
    1.There is a comparatively large number of independents
    2. MPs are perceived as very parochial, both independents and party MPs
    3. Party MPs, despite perceived parochiality (or perhaps there’s no conflict here) rarely vote against the party line (among the strongest party unity of any country in my dataset)
    4. Free votes (without party-line ‘whipping’) are significantly rarer than other countries

    Particularly no.3 (strong party unity) strikes me as remarkable, yet I don’t know what to make of it. If STV is really similar to SNTV, one would expect particularistic voting in parliament, as happened often in the ’empires of pork’ of Japan and Taiwan when they had SNTV (I don’t know of any studies on whether this is actually still the case despite electoral reform). Yet comparatively strong party unity would seem to rule that out – or maybe not. I actually have no idea about party unity in Japan under SNTV. Nor do I have data for pork-barrel spending in Ireland. But still, there’s also finding no. 2 (perceived parochialism), which is to be expected from a system with strong operational similarities to SNTV. What does this parochialism consists of? Maybe it’s just the way MPs campaign in Ireland, or how they do constituency work? Why? And what does their constituency work consist of? And, crucially, how does any of this compare to Malta or Northern Ireland or Tasmania or mainland Australian upper house members (or Cambridge, US or NI or Scottish local councillors, if we can add that into the mix)? I just don’t know.


  8. You need to sort the “independents” to understand the results. Also, you need to understand why Ireland has such a fragmented party system. STV facilitates this, yes, but did not cause it. Back in 1969 they had only three parties, and only one independent was elected. By 1997 there were five main parties (two of which soon merged), six independents, two Greens, Socialist Joe Higgins, and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams.
    The six Independent Alliance MPs are an unofficial party, although not registered as one. They are relatively moderate, but want “reform of the banks on a scale so far avoided by all governments.” They say they “will ensure that the people of Ireland have stable government supporting a government in votes of confidence.” “The Alliance is prepared to take seats in the cabinet if its elected members believe that such a course will be effective in ending civil war politics and the rule of political insiders.” Their other “non–negotiable principles” include “the end of all party political patronage by removing the power of ministerial appointments, a programme for the revival of rural Ireland, and supports for people with disabilities.” They include Finian McGrath, an independent MP since 2002, who had been a Principal of an Inner-City school, and is so highly regarded as to be overdue for cabinet status. Others elected are Shane Ross, former Fine Gael member and business commentator who is skeptical of banks; independent leftist John Halligan previously allied with Labour; Michael Fitzmaurice, a non-conformist businessman; and Seán Canney, a former mayor of Galway who wants greater rights for the self-employed.
    Two kindred spirits are Maureen O’Sullivan, successor to the late Tony Gregory, a long-time inner-city-citizens’ independent; and pro-choice feminist Katherine Zappone.
    The four “Independents 4 Change” MPs are actually a registered political party. They elected Clare Daly and Joan Collins, incumbent MPs who had quit the Socialist Party; Tommy Broughan, a former Labour MP from its left wing, and Mick Wallace, an incumbent independent who is a former footballer and property developer, and faces notorious financial difficulties.
    Similar left independents are former Labour Party member Catherine Connolly and re-elected incumbent MP Thomas Pringle.
    There are also eight rural conservative independents: Michael Healy-Rae and his brother Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Lowry, Denis Naughten, Mattie McGrath, Noel Grealish, Dr. Michael Harty, and Michael Collins.
    Michael Healy-Rae and his brother Danny Healy-Rae are the sons of Jackie Healy Rae, who was one of the “gang of four” from 1997 to 2002, which held the balance of power during a minority government. These four rural Independent MPs worked in harmony, an unofficial party. They were able to secure a wide range of policy concessions during the lifetime of the government. They held weekly meetings with the government chief whip. They were lobbied as a unit by various interest groups. At the 2002 election Healy-Rae’s electoral pamphlet was solely concerned with this, listing securing of funding for hospitals, a new factory providing 300 jobs, and a range of other provisions from school extensions to the upgrading of fishing facilities. He listed the cost of every piece of pork delivered, and they amounted to £250m. Other local electorates looked on with envy at the new roads, hospitals, and jobs provided in Kerry and the other counties.
    And they have seven parties in Parliament. Why?
    The two biggest parties are the heirs of the opposing sides in the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. Many voters in Ireland are (like the Independent Alliance) frustrated with “civil war politics,” but not quite a majority, yet. The result is a brutally fragmented politics.
    The main parties are deadlocked. Centre-right Fine Gael with 49 MPs, with its coalition partner Labour cut to six, are far from the 80 MPs needed for a majority. So is rightish Fianna Fail with 44. Sinn Fein with 23 prefers to stay in opposition, and hope for a swing to the left in a new election. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have the numbers to form a two-party majority “grand coalition” government. But that would be heresy; many in Fianna Fail would quit the party rather than work with their ancestral enemies.
    The three Social Democrats (moderately to the left of Labour) and two Greens are potential allies of a government that will take on the banks. Two elections ago, the Greens made the mistake of joining a conservative coalition, and got wiped out last time.
    The Anti-Austerity Alliance—People Before Profit is an alliance of two Trotskyist parties with six MPs. Although Sinn Fein voters often make them their second choice, the converse is not true: their voters preferred independents, the Greens and the Social Democrats. Several of their MPs are long-time associates of veteran independent socialist Joe Higgins who retired this year. They may echo Sinn Fein’s position that they prefer to stay in opposition, and hope for a swing to the left in a new election.
    I count several leftish but not hard-left groups totalling 19 MPs, all willing to take on the banks, plus Labour’s six. A Swedish–style solution would be a government with a near majority – potentially as many as 74 MPs — which the other main party would agree to let govern in order to avoid giving Sinn Fein a veto.
    If Fine Gael could stiffen its nerve and work with the more militant reformers and leftists, after seeing Labour lose support for being too moderate, would that work? It looks like they may try.


  9. I did do a count of who won the 38 constituencies, to get some idea of how a single member plurality election would have gone. The constituencies do not have equal sized electorates. Obviously with single member plurality you would get different political strategies and alignments.

    The result in terms of who won constituencies was:

    Fine Gael 16
    Fianna Fail 15
    Sinn Fein 3
    Other 4

    The 4 other consisted of one Social Democrat, one Fine Gael member who defected over hospital closures, a rural independent from Kerry, and the outgoing Speaker, who was a Fine Gael MP, so the Fine Gael count really should be 17.

    If this was an actual result, it would be just as much of a mess as the result delivered by STV.

    Normally in these situations you don’t get anything like this. In a normal Irish election, Fianna Fail sweeps the constituencies or comes close and the question is which ones, if any, the other parties manage to win. Fianna Fail in the past has tried to switch to single member plurality for this reason, and the other parties have always combined to stop that. In 2011 Fine Gael would have won nearly everywhere. Fine Gael supporters can take comfort in that this was only the second contested election where that party came first, even on a low plurality.

    Geographically, Fianna Fail has a heartland consisting of the former kingdom of Leinster outside of Dubliln, with everywhere else split more evenly.

    Actually the party percentages track the 2007 result quite closely, except that Fianna Fail hasn’t gotten back most of the support it lost in 2011, which instead mostly went to Sinn Fein and assorted independents and leftists.


    • And it’s not like a respectable, sober, sane country with single member districts would ever have 4 prime ministers pf Australia in 3 years. Oh wait…


      • When a country with PR or SNTV has governmental instability, the turnover is often (though not always) between different coalitions and PMs from different parties, which can mean a big change in government policy. I think Australia’s recent prime-ministerial instability is less consequential and much less problematic. Effectively, it’s the party replacing its agent – an important part, I would think, of responsible party government, and in some ways Australia is superior to other systems where this is not a real possibility.


      • Alan, I understand that Australia having five changes of PM in eight years is scored as a defect of AV, not as a defect of single-seaters. Just as, eg, Belgium and Spain illustrate the defects of federalism, PR and written constitutions, but in no way reflect badly on monarchy: France, on the other hand, exemplifies the flaws inherent in republics, but not of unitary states or single-member electoral districts: Bush v Gore was a black mark against having a republic, but not against first-past-the-post voting or a two-party system. It’s all about isolating the causation. Whatever respects a given country differs from Westminster Britain in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, those will be the reasons why its politics fall short of the ideal.
        Come on, don’t you _read_ The Spectator?! What have you been doing with your time?


      • JD, it would be nice if Turnbull had replaced Abbott because his Progressive Liberal Party Of Australia had elected more of its candidates to the House of Representatives (and ideally, had done this because it polled more votes) than its coalition partner the Australian True Nationalist Conservative Party, led by Abbott. But he didn’t. He replaced Abbott because individual Liberal Party MHRs and Senators switched their support within the party room. Something that voters have much less control over. The only weapon for disaffected Liberals is to vote for the enemy (as a lot of disaffected Labor supporters did in 2010 and 2013).
        Ironically, while Abbott and Turnbull do lead a coalition government, their actual coalition partners (the Nationals) had no input into the change of prime minister either.
        They warned me that if I supported PR, the prime ministership would be decided not by voters at the ballot-box, but by secret deals among MPs. I did, and it is.


      • I was comparing changes of government between elections, not as a result of them. And in that situation voters have no control either way. What happens in Australia, though, is that you have a change of PM, but not of government, and that is a direct result of the fact that voters made the choice between Labor and the coalition back in 2013. I have nothing to do with people making specious arguments about the PMship being chosen by the people; it clearly isn’t. What you have is responsible party government: voters choose which party (or group of parties) will be their agent in governing, and the party chooses its agent at the head of the government.


  10. To follow up on some of the comments,has anyone actually done a comparative study of the frequency of changes of prime minister in systems using single member districts vs proportional systems?

    This might be thrown off by the situation with the Italian First Republic, though my understanding is that the party system there was essentially the same as in semi-proportional Japan, where the office of the Prime Minister simply rotated annually around the various factions in the dominant party.

    The UK is something of an outlier in having fairly long tenures for Prime Ministers and that may have thrown everyone off.


    • I think Canada has had even fewer mid-term changes of PM than the UK, owing to the fact that parties elect their leaders in US-style conventions, undermining any accountability by the leader to the party caucus.


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