Richard Nabavi’s guide to the Irish election part 2

Richard Nabavi’s guide to the Irish election part 2


Votes, Seats, Coalitions

As I mentioned in Part 1, an understanding the voting system is essential to understanding Irish politics. There are 40 constituencies which this time will elect a total of 158 TDs, by Single Transferable Vote (STV). Each constituency elects either 3, 4 or 5 TDs. Voters rank the candidates. The first-preference votes are counted first. Any candidate who has enough votes to exceed the ‘quota’ (i.e. the total number of voters divided by one plus the number of available seats in the constituency) is elected. Any votes over the quota are declared surplus and go to the next preference. If no-one new meets the quota, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the next preferences of those voters are transferred to the next round of counting.

The key point here is that votes cast for losing candidates and excess votes cast for winning candidates are both transferred to voters’ next choice candidates. The way in which transfers are distributed is thus crucial to the result. Also, because there are very few ‘wasted votes’, independents and very small parties can get elected as one of the members in a multi-member constituency.

In the past, Labour has tended to benefit from transfers both from candidates on the far-left and from centre-right voters who prefer Labour to the alternatives if their first preference party is no longer in the running. Sinn Féin, in contrast, has been seen as transfer-toxic because of its history.

Whilst that general pattern may persist, with Sinn Féin polling at up to 20% nationally it may have enough votes to make substantial gains without needing many transfers, and it may pick up transfers from the far-left given its Syriza-style economic stance.

A new factor is that Labour and Fine Gael have agreed a pact whereby they will each encourage their supporters to put the other as second preferences. However, Labour may be at such a low point that its candidates will be eliminated early and therefore not benefit from potential transfers – this effect is likely to kick in if they get less than around 10% of first preferences. For this reason, Fine Gael may end up the winners from this pact.

Translating vote shares to seat totals: Because of the multiplicity of parties and independents, plus the difficulty of estimating how second and lower preferences will be distributed, predicting Irish seat totals from opinion poll figures is particularly difficult. A website to watch is that of Dr. Adrian Kavanagh, whose model of the Irish electoral system is well-regarded. As an example, the latest Red C poll (24 Oct) had Fine Gael 30% (up 2%), Fianna Fáil 20% (down 2%), Sinn Féin 16% (NC), Labour 7% (down 3%), Independents and Others 27% (down 1%). Dr Kavanagh’s seat projection on those figures was Fine Gael 63, Fianna Fáil 33, Sinn Féin 22, Labour 2, Independents and Others 38. This shows how badly Labour, who got 20 seats in 2011, could potentially be hit, although the projection is very sensitive to the exact vote-share; on other polls in the last few weeks the projection has been as high as 14 Labour seats.

Betting on the next government

As the election approaches, Paddy Power, Boyle, Betfair Sportsbook and Ladbrokes should have a range of markets available. For now, the focus is on which parties will form the next government.

As you can see from the above seat projection, the Irish system makes it very hard for any one party to get a majority (79 seats needed), or even to get enough seats to form a one-party minority government. Another coalition is, therefore, likely. The table shows some of the betting odds.

FG/FF 13/8 Paddy Power
FG/Lab 3/1 Paddy Power, Ladbrokes
FG/FF/Other 7/1 Boyle, Paddy Power
FG Minority 8/1 Betfair Sports
FF/SF 14/1 Boyle
FG Majority 33/1 Betfair Sports

If the numbers add up, a continuation of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition would suit both partners. That, however, would require Labour to do a lot better than the polls currently indicate. Enda Kenny could try to make up the numbers with support from Renua (formed by ex-Fine Gael TDs), and perhaps a couple of independents.

Fianna Fáil (who are slightly to the left of Fine Gael) could also be interested in a deal with Labour, but on current polling it’s hard to see them having the numbers to outbid Fine Gael.

One party which is very unlikely to enter any coalition is Sinn Féin. The other three main parties wouldn’t want to be associated with them, and Sinn Féin wouldn’t want to repeat the Greens’ and Labour’s experience of suffering from being the junior coalition partner.

If Fine Gael and Labour can’t between them get a majority, what about the logical combination, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who are not far apart ideologically and economically? Logical though it is, the historic rivalry between the two parties means that neither is likely to be keen on the idea, and Fianna Fáil are worried that they too would suffer as a junior coalition party. Although the numbers may well add up, the politics doesn’t: the current odds look much too short to me.

In my view the value is a continuation of the Fine Gael/Lab coalition at 3/1. It’s the only realistic option which the parties involved actively want, and as the election approaches and voters begin to focus on the make-up of the next government, I expect the independents’ support to fall and the coalition parties to benefit as their ‘Don’t risk the recovery’ message gains traction. Even if the two parties can’t between them get a majority, we could well see a minority FG/Lab coalition government with grudging Fianna Fáil and independent support. But if Labour don’t improve their position substantially from here, even that option might not be viable.

Richard Nabavi


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