Ireland’s February 8th, 2020 national election ended in a virtual three-way tie between the dominant center right and center left parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, and the historically marginalized populist party Sinn Fein. The Sinn Fein historically occupied a background role in Irish politics, shunned by a society still stinging at the memory of its that still remembers its role as the Irish Republic Army’s political mouthpiece during the devastating infamous decades-long bloody sectarian conflict with Northern Ireland. The devoutly nationalist, pro-reunification Sinn Fein nonetheless defied pundits’ assumptions that it languished on the nation’s political fringes by securing 22.3% of the vote. This performance leveled the playing field between Sinn Fein and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail which collected 22.4% and 22.2% of the vote, respectively. Ireland’s February 8th, 2020 election results stoked anxieties about the ranked-choice system’s capacity to seal off the electoral process from radical intrusions. Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole sounded a death knell for Irish politics’ fraying centrism and bipolar party system: “this we know and know full well: that old system is finished and it is not coming back any time soon.”
It is too early to definitively declare the death of “that old system” and the onset of democratic erosion in Ireland. Dynamism molds political orders’ metamorphosis. and backsliding is typically characterized as an incremental process that occurs along a spectrum. Ellen Lust and David Waldner conceive democratic backsliding as “a change in a combination of competitive electoral procedures, civil and political liberties, and accountability” that incite a “decline in the quality of democracy.” The Irish election signal a potential for a decline in democracy’s quality by giving Sinn Fein, a populist fringe party, a foothold in mainstream politics and entrapping the incumbent moderate government between its centrist priorities and tradition and the public’s growing affinity for populist, more radical voices. Ranked-choice voting’s inability to compensate for deepening public disenchantment with establishment politicians may create a breeding ground for democratic norms and institutions’ gradual corrosion.
The left-wing Sinn Fein, while not as blatantly destabilizing as Europe’s right-wing populist factions, is nonetheless a Trojan horse threatening to precipitate democratic erosion. The party’s ascension exposes and exploits the frailty of Ireland’s two party system, further complicates coalition building, and breeds the conditions for inflamed political polarization in a predominantly moderate state. Harvard University political scientists Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize the vitality of democratic gatekeeping in neutering populist threats to democracies’ structural and normative integrity. They assert in How Democracies Die that “successful gatekeeping requires that mainstream parties isolate and defeat extremist forces.” The two leading parties displayed desire to serve as gatekeepers by pledging to exclude Sinn Fein from a potential coalition government during the campaign cycle. Moreover, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail formed a coalition government following the 2016 elections, symptomatic of Irish politics’ collaborative modus operandi between ideologically opposed parties. However, the main parties’ failure to capture even a quarter of the vote strips the political center of the electoral leverage needed to justify shutting Sinn Fein out of the ruling coalition. Excluding Sinn Fein would pummel the mainstream parties’ legitimacy, already faltering due to public frustration with years of perceived stagnancy in economic development and infrastructure improvements. The parties’ promised exclusion of the populist party constitutes a disregard for what Sinn Fein’s supporters consider a fair outcome in a competitive, free election and the suppression of a party beholden to the “common will” rather than insider maneuvering..
While Ellen Lust and David Waldner argue, in making a case for democratic backsliding shapeshifting quality, that “apparently exclusionary measures can further democratization, allowing regime stability necessary for further strengthening,” it’s difficult to ascertain whether Sinn Fein’s rise signals a normal change in the political winds or an actual threat to Irish democracy’s long-term health. Thus, excluding the party from a coalition, while a responsible means of democatic preservation in many cases, may not justify imperiling the Irish public’s faith in the government to faithfully execute elections and honor the norm of top performing parties forming an inclusive coalition. By divorcing coalition government-building from accountability to the electorate, edging Sinn Fein out of the ruling coalition could disincentivize the public from actively participating in future elections or trusting the government to remain faithful to norms, such as honoring electoral results. Yale political scientist Robert A. Dahl, albeit tussling with an idealized rather than real-life manifestation of democracy, theorized, “a key characteristic of democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered political equals.” Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s proposed exclusion of Sinn Fein qualifies as lackluster responsiveness, and thus accountability, to the population. Ironically, mainstream attempts to preserve the government’s long-term immunity from more extreme radical influence would constitute an encroachment on conventional democratic norms.
The structural buffer offered by ranked-choice voting failed to suppress fringe opinions’ influence in the Irish general elections. However, formalized institutions only fulfill their intended functions if reinforced by complementary norms. Robert Lieberman pinpoints norms’ core purpose as “binding political leaders to routinized patterns of behavior and instilling in citizens expectations about how democratic governance is to be carried out. ” Ranked-choice voting’s supporters trumpet as a salve to electorate polarization and fragmentation, both insidious catalysts for democratic erosion by weakening politicians and the public’s commitment to preserving democratic norms over partisan “winning.” Dahl exposed the fundamental tension between political polarization and a cooperative government by mulling “the greater the conflict between government and opposition, the more likely that each will seek to deny opportunities to the other to participate effectively in policymaking.” Thus, ranked-choice voting can structurally impede democratic erosion by creating a political climate incompatible with tribalism that encourages prioritization of party success over responsiveness to the general population.
The public’s intensifying disenchantment with the moderate mainstream weakens the centrist norms that generally discourage Irish from voting for radical candidates en masse. Sinn Fein successfully campaigned as a harbinger of change, following the well-worn populist road of posturing itself as a tonic to a sick and malfunctioning establishment. Therefore, it leaves the elites with little outright choice but to co-opt the populist voice into government. The public still expects the government to fulfill its normative obligation to facilitate collaboration between different political ideologies, even if populism historically proves itself capable of slowly unraveling democracy from the inside. The Irish government must strike a delicate balance between honoring and reinforcing norms that furnish Ireland’s democracy while attempting to avoid co-opting a populist voice that, albeit seemingly open to compromise, may prove unpredictable and hostile to the existing democratic regime. It’s a tricky situation whose paths fail to illuminate a clear destination.
Beggin, Riley. “Irish Election Yields a Three-Way near Tie – and a Sinn Féin Surge.” Vox, Vox, 9 Feb. 2020, www.vox.com/world/2020/2/9/21130167/irish-election-results-tie-sinn-fein-fine-gael-fianna-fail.
Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
Fortin, Jacey. “Why Ranked-Choice Voting Is Having a Moment.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/10/us/politics/ranked-choice-voting.html.
Laurent, Lionel. “Ireland Brings New Twist to Populism.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 2020, www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-02-10/ireland-brings-new-twist-to-populism-in-european-union.
Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
Lieberman, Robert C., Suzanne Mettler, Thomas B. Pepinsky, Kenneth M. Roberts, & Richard Valelly. “Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States.” Working paper.
Lust, Ellen and David Waldner. 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC: USAID. pp. 1-15.