Sunday 27 February 2011

Irish General Election 2011: Some early thoughts

The first day of counting is over (Ireland uses the PR-STV system in its general elections), and at the time of writing the results for the 166 Dáil seats stand at: Fine Gael 68; Labour 35; Fianna Fáil 17; Sinn Féin 13; ULA 4; Others 13, so 147/166 seats have been filled. The election will have a big Irish political impact and an uncertain European impact, and it's unclear how this will work out.

In Irish Politics.

It looks pretty certain that the next government will be a Fine Gael-Labour coalition (in continental terms a Grand Coalition). It will be Labour's best result because they will now be the second biggest party in the Dáil after having been the third party for their entire history. There were concerns that their manifestos are too different on major economic issues to work together effectively, but I'm sure there are well established personal links between them and there will be large sections of the aging Labour front bench who will be eager to get into government at last.

For Fianna Fáil it's a complete disaster: only around 20 seats is an unthinkable result for the natural party of government. Their support base is aging and they have become "transfer toxic", so that they rarely won the last seat in any constituency, and there are few constituencies with more than one FF TD. It is a low support base to build form, and they will have trouble trying to distinguish themselves ideologically as they were always a broad-based, Gaulist-type movement whose main ideological componant was Irish Republicanism. In this regard Sinn Féin will be a threat since it can claim its ground on Republicanism and organises in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. FF may have recognised this threat and might be aiming to counter it by organising in Northern Ireland itself. It will be hard for FF to regain the Republican image after their government saw the IMF-EU bail-out deal, however.

A big boost to Fianna Fáil would be leading the opposition, which will give them a chance to feed on the anger of the electorate at the incoming government as it detoxifies. They could face challenges on this on two fronts.

Sinn Féin has done really well, and the party has a strong tradition for good constituency work that translates into votes, and they have more than doubled their representation this time around - a clear sign that all their base-building in the Republic is paying off. They wouldn't get as many seats as FF, but there is a danger for FF that they will try to form a technical group in the Dáil with the ULA and perhaps other left-wing independents to become the biggest opposition party. So it could be SF that robs FF of the "oxygen of publicity". SF will be aiming next time around to eat into Labour's support as the biggest left-wing opposition party. Though SF has become more transfer-friendly, if the economy does pick up I wonder if the rhetoric of opposition - and SF's plans seem quite unrealistic to me - will be able to attract even more votes, or if SF will need to moderate and broad its appeal? If they become more moderate the ULA (United Left Alliance) will be breathing down their neck to fill the protest vote gap.

There are some right-wing independents in the Dáil, most notably Shane Ross, who is reported to be trying to form a like-minded technical group of 8 TDs who could support a FG government and keep Labour out of power. FG is unlikely to take this option as ideological independents would be high maintenance, but it would be tempting in order to retain cabinet posts. In any case it will lessen Labour's bargaining hand.

FG's big election win means that it will be hard for Labour to influence government policy. The question is, should it try to influence it to benefit low and middle income families (its target voters), or become the leaders of the opposition and make Irish politics truly left-right? It sounds like Labour wants to be in government (a lot of rhetoric on government stability and a broad based government to deal with the crisis), but it has to be questioned whether it can influence government enough for it to be worth it. Labour is strong in Leinster and Munster, but very weak in the rest of the country, where SF has won seats. They would need to be wary of letting SF grow while it is in government, or it could fail to break out of the role of "the other party" of Irish politics. Both the alternative opposition allignments are threats to FF.

In European Politics.

There will have to be a renegotiation of the bail-out agreement, as Ireland simply cannot bear the burden of all the private debt in the system. Much of this private debt is made up of loans from German and British and other European banks, which raises the question of why the pain of dealing with bad lending should be concentrated in Ireland. Despite the moral arguments, any action has to be European-wide to be credible: we need money to fund the state and public services, and washing the debt back into the European system would restart the debt crisis which would be bad for the recovering Irish export industry without solving our own public funding crisis.

The problem is that strong negotiations need to be tempered by a clear vision and arguments for the compromises and changes that Irish, German, Dutch, etc, etc, people will have to make. For Eurobonds and bondholder burdening, we would be asking other people to take up the pain and burdens we have, and we need to sell that to them. Internally, we need to sell the pooling of sovereignty involved in Eurobonds and other forms of fiscal harmonisation - after all, we might be called on in the future to bail out other countries in the Eurozone, and we would want to make that as unlikely to happen as possible.

Compromise will be the other of the day, so the Irish government and the rest of the European Council needs to be exceptional in delivering a workable solution to the debt crisis, including economic governance, and at the same time sell it to the people - because all of this will need Treaty change.

If there is an agreement on the future shape of the Eurozone, then there will be a referendum in Ireland. What compromise would be realistic and acceptable to Ireland, and the other Eurozone members?

1 comment:

  1. I have been following this election here in the States, which is completely fascinating given how a multiple party parliamentary system works and all the deal making that goes along with it. From a personal stand point I favor SF, for what it stands for, although I have my disagreements with some policies. As you pointed out, SF can form a coalition with ULA and other leftist independents and form the largest opposition, how likely is that to happen? How does the ULA feel about SF? I have a pretty strong feeling that given austerity, the Irish Economy is not going to recover (call it my economic training or whatever), who stands to gain the most from this in that event? And if the economy continues to not recover, how long will the grand coalition last?