by Frank Schnittger
Thu Mar 10th, 2016 at 07:36:13 PM EST
The recent Irish general election resulted in an outcome that is unlikely to lead to the formation of a stable government. Ireland thus joins a number of countries such as Spain and Slovakia which have had inconclusive elections in response to the austerity policies of recent times. Governments have not been re-elected, but neither have coherent alternative governments been formed. Fine Gael, the main Government party, got 25% of the first preference vote (-11% compared to 2011), and won just 50 seats (-26 since 2011). They are still the largest party but fell far short of the 79 seats required for an overall majority. Their erstwhile coalition partners, Labour, were close to being annihilated gaining just 7% of the vote (- 13%) and 7 seats (- 30).
Fianna Fail, the previous ruling party unceremoniously booted out of power at the 2011 general election for presiding over the bank bail-out and economic collapse made something of a comback, gaining 24% of the first preference vote (+7%) and 44 seats (+20). However they have ruled out forming a grand coalition with Fine Gael, the only combination of parties capable of forming a stable government with an overall majority in parliament. Part of the problem is that minority partners in Irish Governments have tended to be severely punished by the electorate at the next election - witness the permanent demise of the the Progressive Democrats in 2009, the temporary demise of the Greens at the last election, and Labour's latest implosion this time around.
The other big winners in the election were Sinn Fein with 14% of the vote (+4%) and 23 seats (+9) and a wide variety of smaller parties - People before Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance (6 seats, +4), Social Democrats (3, +0), Greens (2, +2) and independents from both the left and right of the political spectrum (23, +9). Most are protest or local candidates with no interest in helping to form a national Government. Collectively most share the traditional wet dream of the left - forcing the two (1922) civil war parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail into a grand coalition in order to expose the lack of ideological distinction between them in anticipation of seeing them decimated at the next general election. The expectation is that this would lead to a more "European" left right divide in Irish politics and the prospect of the left attaining majority power at some stage in the not too distant future.
The outcome is a situation where only one party, Fine Gael, is unequivocally commited to forming a Government, and they only have 25% of the first preference vote and less than one third of the seats. There are three possible ways out of the impasse:
- Fianna Fail breaks its election pledge not to form a grand coalition with Fine Gael and risks being hammered at the next election.
- Fianna Fail supports a Fine Gael led minority administration. This could result in Fianna Fail reaping all the approbrium for unpopular Government decisions and gaining none of the credit.
- A new election in relatively short order due to no new Government being formed. This is also a likelyhood with 2. above if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail cannot agree on key decisions.
Enda Kenny, the outgoing Taoiseach who failed to be re-elected as Taoiseach when the Dail met today, is likely to be an early casualty of any of the scenarios described above. As Fine gael leader he has to take responsibility for their inept election campaign which actually saw them lose support as the campaign progressed. Their election slogan "Keep the recovery going" only highlighted the degree to which most people hadn't yet shared in that recovery. GDP grew by 7.8% in 2015
, so it takes spectacular political incompetence to actually lose support during that period.
The reality is that most of the benefits of that recovery have been restricted to the relatively well off. Stripping out the output of the multi-national sector, GNP rose by a much lesser 5.7%. Consumer spending rose by only 3.5%, and most of that rise was due to the increased purchase of cars and spending by tourists. Public expenditure - on which the less well off rely - actually fell by 2.6%. In addition the recovery has been very Dublin centric and it is no surprise that Fine Gael lost less support there. Overall there has been a rise in the Irish Gini index, although more recent information is hard to find:
Before taxes and transfers, Ireland is the most unequal society in the OECD, although taxes and transfers bring us below the European average. The importance of taxes and transfers in reducing inequality highlights the regressive impact of cuts in public expenditure and taxes. Remarkably, Fine Gael made tax reductions a central part of their campaign, when opinion polling indicated that the electorate were much more concerned with restoring funding for public services such as health care, housing and education. Thus despite a spectacular macro economic turnaround with unemployment down from 15% to 9% and the a reduction in the debt/GDP ratio from 120% to 95%, Fine Gael and Labour still contrived to lose the election.
I based my earlier prediction that Fine Gael would do better than the then polls suggested on what I thought was the inexorable logic that the country needed a Government, and Fine Gael were the only party with the serious prospect of forming one. Instead they went down in the polls and even managed to underperform their deteriorating polls in the actual election. Some of this may have been due to a Shy Tory effect where people were not prepared to tell pollsters that they were gravitating back to Fianna Fail despite that party's disastrous stewardship of the Government during the 2008-2012 economic implosion. Politics in Ireland is more about relationships than ideology, and many people vote the way their families have voted ever since the Civil war.
However the major factor was undoubtedly the spectacular incompetence of the Fine Gael and Labour campaigns which ignored the realities of rising regional and social inequalities and the grossly assymetric impact of austerity and the subsequent recovery. No Irish Government can afford to allow itself be labelled as arrogant, and most of the electorate were waiting in the long grass to give them a good kicking in consequence.
However the problem which drove my erroneous prediction still stands: Ireland needs a Government, all the more so with the prospect of Brexit and a deteriorating external environment putting the recovery (unequal as it is) at risk and landing us back into crisis mode all over again. None of the other parties are offering themselves as junior partners in a coalition. Fianna Fail even appear to be turning down a floated possible offer of equality in terms of cabinet representation and the rotation of the office of Taoiseach between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Unless Fianna Fail agrees to some such offer we are likely to see another general election quite soon with no guarantee of a very different outcome.
Perhaps my prediction will then come true with the electorate more focused on voting for parties willing to form a Government and less focused on local issues and providing opposition. However at this stage my sense is that all bets are off: the electorate has voted and will resent having to vote again within a short period of time. Some may be even be more disposed to vote for protest candidates or candidates offering a much more leftwing economic programme. It all depends on who they will hold responsible for the political paralysis.
Certainly I would expect any new election to be fought with new party leaders. Kenny has to take responsibility for Fine Gael's disastrous campaign, and Joan Burton must likewise stand down as Labour party leader having lost 30 of the parties 37 seats since the 2011 elction even if not all of those losses were on her watch. Fine Gael and Labour could then be perceived to have paid a price for their arrogance and receive some level of forgiveness from the voters. Sinn Fein also badly underperformed their polls and could hardly be satisfied with just a 4% increase in their vote in such propitious circumstances. Gerry Adams is widely perceived as an obstacle to their further advance as a mainstream party and may make way for a younger leader not associated with the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland.
Ironically, Micheal Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail and almost the only (politically) surviving cabinet minister from the disastrous Fianna Fail led Government which presided over the economic collapse might be the only major party leader remaining in situ when the next election is called. One has to marvel at his powers of self reinvention or alternatively the short memories of the electorate. There is some research which indicates that many voters are most influenced by their personal circumstances in the previous 3 months and that they are most likely to vote for the politician and party which best articulates their feelings over that period.
However the civil war generation have long died out and Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael have, together, fallen below 50% of the vote for the first time ever having been at 80%+ as recently as 1982. If there is one long term trend this election has exemplified, it is the emergence of parties and individuals outside the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael traditions, most of whom oppose those parties from the left. Indeed the only right wing splinter party to present itself to the electorate, Renua, which split from Fine Gael because of the latters very limited reform of Ireland's anti-abortion laws, lost all their seats in the election. The Catholic Church now has almost no elected politicians explicitly supporting their social teaching on abortion or marriage equality.
So the long term trend is clear, even if the left are as yet nowhere near a coherent majority in Parliament. Indeed, splits between Sinn Fein and other left wing politicians can be as bitter as any between left and right. I supported the small newly formed Social Democrat Party which retained all three of its seats with resounding majorities but which has, as yet, no national, or indeed in most constituencies, no local organisation. I suspect it will be some time yet before we see a radical re-orientation of Irish politics. In the meantime we will continue to see conservative led Governments being replaced by other conservative led Governments as the electorate vents its frustration without being offered or accepting a coherent alternative. The only question is will it be Fine Gael or Fianna Fail which will play the dominant role on the centre right. That is what the current impasse and Kabuki theater is really all about.