What is a snap election and why do they happen?

In the living memory of many of the students of UCD there has never been a more politically turbulent time so close to home. The past four years, beginning approximately with the election of President Donald Trump, have become exponentially more surprising. It seems fruitless to speculate about the future of politics in Great Britain, the United States and now, it would appear, Ireland. As a result of a (predominantly) successful “Brexit Budget” for Minister Paschal Donohue and Fine Gael, there have been mutterings about a ‘snap election’. Prime Minister Boris Johnston has also recently called one in the U.K. But what is a snap election? What makes this election “snap” as opposed to any other regular election? This article takes a look at what a snap election is, why a government would opt to have one, and what benefits could the winning party reap.

Simply put, a snap election is an election called earlier than scheduled. Under our constitution, the Dáil term can last for a maximum of seven years. However, as a result of the Electoral Act 1992, a statute law was introduced, establishing a lower term of only five years per term. Should an election be called any time before the five-year period is over, it would be considered “snap” - no matter how unsurprising. Of the six governments which have sat since the 1992 Electoral Act, only one up to now has been dissolved prematurely - the 30th Dáil of which both Brian Cowen, and before him Bertie Ahern, were Taoisigh.

This leads to the question; why would you call a snap election? Generally a snap election is called when the leading party are polling well and believe that by calling an election they could increase their majority. Just hours after Budget 2020 was announced, Professor David Farrell, Head of UCD School of Politics and International Relations, spoke to RTE’s Cian McCormack on Morning Ireland “There is going to be an election sometime we know within the next six, eight, ten, months at the latest. We know this is the last budget. And yet, when is going to be a good time?” Any murmurs of general elections in the past Dáil term have consistently been quashed by Brexit worries. However with the British exit from the European Union looking increasingly distant, it may seem that now is as good a time as ever to call an election; “When you think it through, at least when I do, this is probably going to be as good a time as he [Leo Varadkar] could have to call an election.. in terms of his best interests” Prof. Farrell continued.

However, in the not-too-distant past, the snap-election strategy yielded poor results in the UK House of Commons. Under pressure to increase the Conservative majority in order to push through a Brexit deal, coupled with consistently strong leads in opinion polls, Theresa May called a General Election in April of 2017. However in the final weeks of the campaign there was a surge in popularity for the Labour Party, leading to the loss of thirteen Conservative seats, and subsequently a loss of confidence in May as leader.

Another reason a sitting government might call an election would be to avoid by-elections. A by-election is an election to fill a specific seat and only occurs when a vacancy arises due to the death, expulsion or resignation of a TD. As a result of the European Parliament elections in May of 2019, four TDs were elected to the European Parliament, leaving their seats vacant. In 2010 a High Court ruling created a six-month deadline in which the seats must be filled. Since the first sitting of the new European Parliament was on July 2nd 2019, the seats must be filled by January 2nd 2020. Again speaking on Morning Ireland, Ferghal Purcell, former Government Press Secretary, said that he would advise an election before Christmas, explaining that a general election “would get around the by-elections and the impression of a sitting government taking a hit”.

Having worked with Enda Kenny’s government for six years, Purcell is well versed in the importance of timing an election carefully; “What does Leo [Varadkar] frame his election around?.. To my mind the more this election is about the careful handling of Brexit, the better for the sitting government” he told McCormack. At the time of the publication of this article, Fine Gael were on 32%, as a result of a Sunday Business Post and Red C opinion poll. This was up 3% since this time last year. The poll, conducted over eight days with 1000 participants saw Fianna Fáil drop to 24%, and Sinn Féin to 11%. The Labour Party also dropped to 4% while The Green Party remained unchanged. Assuming the results of the opinion poll accurately reflect voter sentiment at the moment, it would mean that Fine Gael would win 50 of the 158 seats, should an election be held in the morning, an increase of just two positions.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has previously indicated that May 2020 is ‘the right time to call an election’. However, constitutionally, the ability to call an election is one of the few instances in which the Taoiseach has a significant advantage over his opponents. Not only does he have a view of the country, but also an awareness of positive (and negative announcements to come). He can also choose to call an election when the opposition are weak, such as at the moment as a result of the ludicrous ‘vote-gate’ scandal. In short, it would seem tactical for the Taoiseach to name a distant date for the election, while in reality holding his cards to his chest; “I would like the element of surprise” Purcell declared.

Will a snap election be called? Who can really predict in the current international political climate. However between a positive budget, a strong Brexit presence and imminent by-elections it would be surprising for the Taoiseach to hold off until May of next year. All we can do is wait and speculate.