Election preview: Ireland

Polls are open in Ireland’s general election, expected to badly dent the majority of the incumbent coalition government. Prime minister Enda Kenny was elected with a landslide in 2011, on the back of an economic crisis for which his opponents had to wear the blame. Now, however, it seems that the recovery has not been enough to satisfy public opinion.

Opinion polls show that Kenny’s Fine Gael will remain the largest party, but if the swing against it is at the high end of expectations, it may have trouble putting together a new government.

The last election saw coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour win a large majority, with 76 and 37 seats respectively out of the total of 166 (now to be reduced to 158). Fianna Fáil, which lost more than half of its support, was reduced to 20 seats, with 16 for Sinn Féin and the rest to a collection of mostly left-wing minor parties and independents.

But the economic recovery, while impressive on the figures, has left the Irish still grumbling, and it’s not disputed that the government will lose seats. The relationship between the coalition partners has also become rocky – it’s by no means certain that they will sign up for another term together, and Labour in particular seems to have suffered from its participation in government, perhaps not unlike the Liberal Democrats in Britain.

Another analogy is December’s Spanish election: like Spain, it seems Ireland might wind up with four strong parties in parliament, with no obvious route to a stable majority. And like their Spanish counterparts, Irish pundits are talking about the possibility of a coalition of the two historic rivals, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

But whereas the Spanish parties could at least be ordered neatly in ideological terms, Ireland’s party system defies easy description. The best I can do is quote my own summary from five years ago:

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are separated not by their class basis or by economic or social policy, but by their positions on the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 and consequent civil war of 1922. Fine Gael is the descendant of the pro-treaty forces who accepted the gradual path to Irish sovereignty; Fianna Fáil represents the anti-treaty forces, who lost the civil war but have dominated Irish politics since the 1930s.

Categorising this in left-right terms, as commentators like to try to do, is fraught with difficulty. Fianna Fáil is traditionally more nationalist and pro-Catholic, but also more interventionist on economic policy. Fine Gael tends more to liberal internationalism and anti-clericalism (hence its relationship with Labour), but is also seen as more pro-business and sits with the centre-right in the European parliament.

In recent years Fianna Fáil has identified itself more with pro-market policies, but this strategy came to grief with the financial crisis. The middle-class vote has swung strongly back to Fine Gael; Labour, with its best result ever, has consolidated the urban working-class vote, and Sinn Féin, whose vote also increased sharply, has become the more natural home for the nationalist vote.

Fianna Fáil, which once sat with the far right in the European parliament, now markets itself as a centrist party and is an observer member of Liberal International. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, aims to become the main left-of-centre party, although it has a number of smaller rivals including the Anti-Austerity Alliance, the Greens and (new this year) the Social Democrats.

While Ireland’s party system is unique, its electoral system is straightforward – at least for an Australian audience. Just think Tasmania. There are 40 multi-member electorates, each electing from three to five members by Hare-Clark proportional representation. Although the relatively small electorates in general work to the advantage of the larger parties, Irish voters are often willing to support small parties and independents, and overall proportionality tends to be pretty well preserved.

Another unusual feature of Irish elections is that there is no counting on the night; counting will not begin until Saturday morning, Irish time (i.e. tomorrow evening in Australia), so don’t expect meaningful results before Sunday. And if the swing is on, forming a new government could take much longer.


Note (Sunday): Enda Kenny’s name was inadvertently rendered as “Kerry” in the original post – now fixed.


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