Elections that count: voter participation needed

 

Traditionally, midterm elections offer the electorate an opportunity to give the serving government a good kicking and some blood is expected to flow on this occasion. Broken promises, higher taxes and reduced public services have all contributed to voter disillusionment and that is likely to be reflected in the outcome of local authority, European Parliament and Dáil byelections. The level of casualties suffered by Fine Gael and the Labour Party will probably have a direct bearing on the longevity of the Coalition arrangement.

Having entered Government with the largest majority in the State’s history, the two parties experienced a series of internal revolts and defections, along with fierce external criticism, as they grappled with an inherited fiscal deficit and controversial domestic legislation. Exit from the EU-IMF bailout and rising job numbers offered temporary relief but that feelgood factor evaporated as ongoing financial retrenchment met with public austerity fatigue. The Government’s fumbled response – holding out the prospect of future income tax cuts and pay increases even as water charges were being imposed – was much too close to discredited auction politics.

These elections will not bring down the Government, although they may shape its future direction. Independent candidates are expected to do particularly well. The leadership and pecking order within a number of parties are likely to come under scrutiny as ambitious politicians consider their prospects. Such considerations should not, however, distract voters from the task of selecting the most capable candidates to represent them.

High-quality representation within the European Parliament is of particular importance because of that institution’s growing power and influence within the European Union. Its deliberations have begun to shape economic discourse, while its members have championed inter-State solidarity and opposed the drift towards nationalism. The fact that national issues have dominated all three elections should not detract from their individual importance. The enhanced powers of councillors under recent reforms and with a local taxation base provide powerful reasons for choosing the brightest and most energetic candidates. The importance of the two byelections may reside in the relative performance of the competing parties.

The level of political postering and door-to-door canvassing during the past number of weeks has provided comforting evidence of vibrant and fully engaged democratic structures. That activity stands in stark contrast to the apathy that has been on display in other EU states. It is now up to the public to respond by turning out in large numbers to exercise its franchise. Active citizenship benefits all of society and, at its best, is capable of providing political direction based on altruistic judgment.

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