By Mike Faricy
The long awaited Irish election of 2011 has finally happened, unfortunately for this island nation, about three years too late. It was my first Irish election and although I couldn’t vote my wife could and did, contributing to a voter turnout upwards of 70%. Undoubtedly you’ve heard of the almost complete annihilation of the Fianna Fail party and the voter ‘tsunami’ that carried the day for Fine Gael, Labor, Sein Fein and even Independents.
Voting took place in over 6000 constituencies across the country on Friday, February 25th. The polls opened at 7:00 AM and remained open until 10:00 in the evening. Actually, voting began two days earlier on the islands off the far west coasts of Donegal and Mayo where over 900 people cast their ballots. The ballots were then ferried back to the mainland in sealed boxes and delivered to a count center.
I went with my wife to our local polling center, just like so many at home our polling center was located in the local school. The ballot was unique to every constituency, Dublin Northwest in our case. The ballot itself was about four inches wide and twelve inches long, sequentially numbered in the upper left hand corner. After showing her polling card which had been mailed to our home earlier in the week she received her ballot. The election judge tore it from a thick tablet of ballots, then franked (stamped) it, indicating it had been received from an official judge. Everywhere across the country the ballots are filled out by pencil.
The ballot listed every candidate running, in our constituency there were twelve for four seats. There was a color photo of the candidate, their name and a party affiliation if there was one. There are no ballot initiatives, no judges, no city councilors or school board on the ballot. You vote strictly for Dail (parliament) candidates in your specific constituency. All the Dail seats in the country are up for election, again four in our constituency. My wife could vote for every candidate, listing her preferences one through twelve.
After marking her ballot she returned it to the election judge who slipped it through the slot in the top of the constituency ballot box. Each ballot box is not much larger than a kitchen waste basket. Before leaving the polling station to be transported to the appropriate counting center all ballot boxes, across the country, are given a final seal with red sealing wax then transported under Garda (Police) supervision.
We journeyed home and I turned on the television to watch the election returns. There were none. The counting wouldn’t begin until 7:00 the following morning once the sealed ballot boxes arrived at the designated counting centers.
On Saturday morning the counting began, one by one constituency ballot boxes were dumped out onto the counting center tables. The counting went on all day Saturday and Sunday. It’s done by hand, an amazingly complex and fascinating operation when you factor in the issue of preferences.
Each constituency is assigned a quota of votes that must be obtained in order to be elected. Four seats in out constituency, twelve candidates, the quota was something around 6895 votes. After the first count no one had reached the quota so the bottom two candidates, those receiving the least votes, were disqualified and the preferences resulting from their ballots were distributed to the remaining candidates. It’s not unusual for a half dozen counts in any constituency to occur before any individual has been deemed elected to a seat. As the counts continue, the next poor performers are dropped off the bottom of the list, and the preferences from those ballots reassigned to remaining candidates. It makes your head spin.
In this election, to say the coalition government of Fianna Fail and the Greens was decimated certainly doesn’t do justice to what occurred. With a few short exceptions, the Fianna Fail party has been in power in this country since the end of the civil war in 1923. Up until this election many people voted based on which side their family took in the civil war. That seems to have finally ended. After the burst property bubble, rogue banks, the skinning of the Celtic Tiger, events in Greece and elsewhere it’s amazing this island didn’t erupt as fiscal and democratic rights were squandered and traded down river while the next generation is forced to emigrate.
They are calling it the pencil revolution, what happened on Election Day. The party in power, Fianna Fail, reduced to a mere 17 seats, almost the entire party eliminated. They lined up to vote, home owners in negative equity, those out of work or on reduced income, families of children forced to emigrate. Voting with a rage and an unforgiving need to punish, and punish they did.
Fine Gael was the big winner, they’ll form a coalition government, most likely with Labor as I write this. There is absolutely no time to waste. The word default is now freely being bandied about in regard to IMF and EU debt payments crippling Ireland. Enda Kenny, victorious head of Fine Gael and soon to be the new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) is due to appear in front of Germany and the EU March 11, looking for a reduction on the 5.8% interest rate crippling this nation. Greece, by comparison is paying 5%. Fingers are crossed and after the election all bets are riding on Enda.
Back on the mainland, two weeks before the Irish election there was another election, this one in the old Hanseatic city of Hamburg. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party received their worst results in Hamburg since WWII. The poor result due, in no small part, to German unease in bailing out Greece and now Ireland. By way of comparison German civil servants are paid 30% less than those in Ireland. A week after Enda Kenny’s March 11 meeting looking to reduce the interest rate, Angela Merkel faces two more regional elections. She faces a total of six regional elections over the course of 2011 and the German electorate has so far not been impressed. One wonders if the election that may have really counted for Ireland was held in Hamburg.
And yet, this nation has been through worse and survived, and triumphed. And, God willing can and shall again. You can sense a spirit of renewed hope since the election, maybe just a bit of light slipping in beneath the door. The acceptance that if there is heavy lifting to be done, and there is an awful lot of it, well then, let’s get on with it.
To paraphrase a line from Tevye, the milkman, in Fiddler on the Roof; “God, I know we’re the chosen people, but maybe just once, couldn’t you choose someone else?”