by Frank Schnittger
Mon Feb 3rd, 2020 at 03:39:35 PM EST
Sinn Féin level with Fianna Fáil at 24% in latest opinion poll
Sinn Féin has surged ahead of Fine Gael and is tying with Fianna Fáil for the highest vote among political parties, according to the latest opinion poll published on Sunday.
The Business Post/Red C poll puts Sinn Féin at 24 per cent, up 3 per cent on the previous survey by the same pollsters a week earlier.
Fianna Fáil is down 2 per cent to 24 per cent and Fine Gael down 2 per cent to 21 per cent.
In the space of the two surveys, Fine Gael is down 9 per cent and Sinn Féin up 11 per cent, confirming a trend in other polls.
Sinn Féin secured their first seat in Dail Eireann in modern times in 1997 with 2.5% of the vote. Since then their vote and seats has increased steadily to 14% and 23 seats in 2016. Their fortunes seemed to be waning with the failure of the Northern Ireland institutions and their failure to have any influence on the Brexit debate in Westminster. However since the Brexit withdrawal deal was done and the N. Ireland institutions were restored their standing in the polls has skyrocketed in inverse proportions to the fortunes of Fine Gael.
It's not as if Fine Gael voters are switching to Sinn Féin - the two parties couldn't be further apart on policy and historic origins - but their rise reflects an overwhelming yearning for change among the electorate. 75% of the electorate say they want a change of government with half of those wanting a radical change.
Focus group research indicates that voters are unsure precisely who to vote for with some opting largely for a change of personnel, not policy, in the shape of Fianna Fail, and others opting for more radical change in the shape of Sinn Féin, the Greens, the Labour party or a number of smaller left wing parties.
Sinn Féin have recent unveiled a relatively radical election manifesto promising support for a referendum on Irish unity, tax reductions on the lower paid, and increasing public expenditure on housing, healthcare, childcare, education, pensions, support for small farmers and sustainable energy projects. The cost, estimated at 22 Billion is about twice the "fiscal space" estimated by the Department of Finance to be available for public expenditure on the assumption of 3% growth p.a. over the next five years and the excess is only partly funded by higher taxes on high earners and corporations.
Naturally Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael have criticised the proposals as being economically unsustainable and putting the recovery of the economy at risk. The independent and conservative Irish Fiscal Advisory Council goes much further and warns that downside risks such a Brexit, changes in global corporate taxation rules, trade wars and a global economic downturn put all these projections at risk. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have responded by promising much lower public expenditure increases and to putting money aside in a "rainy day fund." The Sinn Féin proposals allow for no such caution.
But the other problem is more political. Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have pledged not to form a coalition with Sinn Féin because of their relatively recent association with violence both north and south of the border. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have also pledged not to coalesce with each other (thus exposing the lack of policy space between them and handing the role of leadership of the opposition to Sinn Féin). Leo Varadker, at one point, appeared to offer a coalition to Fianna Fail but has since rowed back presumably after a backlash by party supporters.
We could therefore be left with the scenario of the three largest parties by far dominating the Dail but none having the numbers to form a stable government. Even a massive further swing to Sinn Féin wouldn't resolve that problem as the party, possibly fearing earlier polls indicating a collapse in their vote, have nominated only 42 candidates (compared to FF (84) and FG (82) which puts a ceiling on the number of seats they can win in the 160 seat chamber.
That may seem like a colossal blunder, but their surge is a recent phenomenon and the Irish 3,4, or 5 seat constituency single transferable vote system puts a premium on not nominating too many candidates as these tend to disperse the party vote and result in "leakage" to other party or independent candidates. Also, historically, Sinn Féin have underperformed their polls as their younger and poorer voter base have had a propensity to turn out less and their candidates have tended to be less "transfer friendly" - i.e. have benefited less from lower preference votes transferred from other party candidates on their elimination.
So the central scenario, based on current polling numbers, is that Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin will all win c. 40 seats with the remaining 40 divided between Labour, Greens, Social Democrats and plethora of smaller parties and independent candidates. Without a coalition or confidence and supply arrangement between two of the big three, no new Government will be possible, and we may well face new elections within a few months.
Ireland is thus following a European pattern of a decline in the old centre right and centre left "big tent" parties, a splintering of the political system, and a rise of more nationalist parties focused on national identity and populist policies which the establishment says are unsustainable and irresponsible.
Polling isn't until next Saturday and there is always the possibility of a last minute swing to one party or the other. Fine Gael are desperately trying to swing the conversation toward the dangers of Brexit and the performance of the economy, two areas where they are widely seen to have performed well. Fianna Fail is putting the emphasis on public health and housing where the government is seen to have failed, and both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are hoping their more middle class electorate will take fright at Sinn Féin's more radical proposals.
Of the smaller parties, the Greens, Labour and Social Democrats are also expected to do well and gain a few of seats. Independents are expected to be the big losers but if the swing against Fine Gael continues, they could also be big losers. It all depends on how much change the electorate really wants, and who eventually turns out to vote.