Unionist commentator John Coulter was slightly off in his predictions--the Ulster Unionists did win more seats than the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) but fewer votes. Thus, in terms of votes the UUP is now in fourth place. In first place is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with a record 38 seats--up two from the previous election. In second place is Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, with 29 seats--one more than the winning UUP had in 1998. In third place is the UUP with 16 seats and in fourth place the SDLP with 14 seats. In fifth place is the non-sectarian liberal Alliance Party with 8 seats. Three others round out the 108 members of the Assembly--one for the splinter Traditional Unionist Voice and two former UUP members elected as independents.
The biggest message of the election is of the consolidation of the dual rule of the DUP and Sinn Fein who have together managed the peace process since early 2007. Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, despite having lost his Westminster seat to the Alliance Party in the 2010 general election a year ago emerged triumphant as his leadership was credited with his party's victory. Meanwhile the Traditional Unionist Voice, a splinter party from the DUP representing the DUP's traditional hardline anti-republican and anti-nationalist politics, was reduced to a single seat won by its leader in Ian Paisley's former constituency of North Antrim. This demonstrates that there is very little constituency for unionism to the right of the DUP.
UUP leader Tom Elliott immediately landed himself in hot water by denouncing Sinn Fein supporters as "scum" at the vote count in his constituency. Elliott in the video did not appear angry--so the remarks appear to be part of a deliberate strategy to position his party to the right of the DUP. While the DUP speaks quite fluently with a forked tongue, the UUP is still floundering around trying to find a role for itself. Under David Trimble it bled support to the DUP in a principled support of the Good Friday Agreement. Then under Reg Empey, a close associate of Trimble, it aligned itself with the Conservative Party in a merger that lost the party its only remaining Westminster seat. Now it is abandoning its former moderation in favor of the remaining backwoods vote in rural constituencies. Elliott is setting himself up for either a swift retirement as party leader or a massive bleed of members to the DUP and Alliance.
Northern Ireland's multimember Assembly and council constituencies with the PR-STV franchise marries the characteristics of both the first-past-the-post franchise system used in most English-speaking democracies and the proportional representation system used in Israel. Voters can rank up to six preferences, but their votes are only counted once so that no vote is wasted, as in the PR system. But there are 18 separate elections taking place that determine the results of the overall election, as in a first-past-the-post system. This allows for some distortion between the percentage of votes and the percentage of seats won--but not nearly as much as with the first-past-the-post system. The trick for a party is to carefully manage its voters so that their votes are spread among the maximum number of candidates that can win. This way each is assured of attaining the quota of votes necessary to be elected. Sinn Fein is a master of voter management and the DUP is rapidly learning the game. The SDLP and UUP are still amateurs by comparison.
This election also demonstrated that the two leading parties are rapidly losing their traditional character as working class parties by attracting ever larger numbers of middle-class voters. Traditionally the UUP was the home of respectable middle-class moderate unionists and the SDLP was the home of respectable moderate non-violent Catholic nationalists. Since 1998 both the DUP and Sinn Fein have been rapidly attracting middle-class voters. Sinn Fein attracted them by having the IRA abandon armed struggle and then by decommissioning. The DUP attracted them by promising security until the IRA decommissioned and then by managing the relationship with Sinn Fein.
The UUP's plight is similar to that of the United Party in South Africa after 1948. After the National Party was elected to power and introduced apartheid many younger Afrikaner voters started voting for it as a more exciting alternative to the more respectable policies of the United Party. Gradually the Afrikaner electorate of the United Party slowly died off and it became predominantly an English-speaking party. The same thing may well happen with unionists (and nationalists) but on a class rather than an ethnic basis. As this process accelerates more will be tempted to flock to the Alliance Party, which has had a consistent moderate and innovative set of policies over the decades.
In Israel this is likely to take the form of increasing numbers of former Labor Party voters defecting to Kadima and the Labor Party remaining the party of older social democrats. Labor will continue to flounder in search of a role and a policy. The problem in the Middle East is that the moderate parties on both sides have collapsed before a settlement was reached. Except for the Clinton parameters, the parties lack an agreement to rally around.