By the time the dust has settled from the General Election, Fine Gael will have received an estimated €22.5m in state funding since taking office. €1.3m of that will have gone towards funding their election campaign. With fledgling parties such as Renua having failed to raise even €1m, is there a danger of democracy being diluted by money?
It is difficult to find a universally agreed definition of democracy, in theory and especially in practice.
The important characteristics of democracy are agreed upon though, legal equality and political freedom.
Ireland is running what Plato might describe as a simulacrum of democracy. The Greek philosopher defines a simulacrum as a representation or imitation of something which loses the substance and quality of that which it copies.
In this case, democracy in Ireland is becoming an inferior imitation of what it was originally intended to be.
The reason for this is money.
It isn’t difficult to understand why there has been a lot of talk concerning a disparity in funds available to political parties. If party funding came from party sources alone then the argument for diminished democracy would be similarly diminished.
The problem is that funding also comes from state coffers and its distribution could be described as many things, democratic is not one of them.
Fine Gael received €18.2m in exchequer funding in the first four years of the Dail term. Fianna Fail received €13.1m, Labour received €11.7m and Sinn Fein received €8.3m over the same period.
Fledgling parties such as Renua and the Social Democrats were priced out of a fair election campaign and the idea of a level playing ground is laughable.
In a recent article for The Sunday Times, Stephen O’ Brien wrote, “The state is controlling the financial capacity of parties to fight elections.”
The current political system seems to be designed to allow the more established parties to stay in operation with the the party currently in power favored above all others. Even among the so-called “four large parties”, there is a notable chasm of wealth.
Fine Gael will have spent €1.7m on the general election compared to €250,000 spent by Sinn Fein.
The newer parties will spend considerably less.
A system which provides more money to the parties with the biggest share of national first-preference votes serves only to widen this chasm, pricing the minnows out of the market.
Renua leader Lucinda Creighton has said that if her party had any say they would push to reform the way state funds are divided among parties. An element of irony is evident in her claims as Renua fared terribly in the General Election, losing all their Dail seats. Their campaign marred by, among other things, their lack of resources.
There is an argument that if parties are not funded by the state that they would have to resort to raising their own funds, thus inviting a very real possibility of corruption. The system of state funding was established to combat this problem. But that one-time solution has become a serious blemish on the Irish electorate.
In 2010, a Supreme Court ruling in the U.S allowed unlimited campaign contributions to be made by corporations and unions. It is a well-documented fact that the presidential candidate who spends the most on campaigning has always emerged victorious.
Is it right that those backed by superior financial clout always come out on top?
Democratically speaking you would have to say no.
It seems that elections fall into a curious space in the Venn diagram of Democracy and Capitalism. This overlapping space allows for corporate donations and state funding to amplify the voice of a particular party and ensure its message reaches far more ears than the knee-high yelps of less-established parties.
The political minnows such as Renua and AAA-PBP faced very little chance of making significant inroads in this election and while the fact that they are relatively un-established is important, the lack of funding available for effective campaigning is a major factor.
It has to be asked, are our political parties playing on a democratically even playing field? If not then it would seem that our current political system is a mere simulation of a democracy.