Uncertain Outcome for Dominant Parties as Irish Head to Polls

When Enda Kenny, the Irish Prime Minister—or Taoiseach ("chief"), as he is known Ireland—announced that he would dissolve the Irish parliament on Feb. 3rd, it marked the beginning of a short three-week race to elect a new government. But rather than a frantic scramble, the race has felt more like a sluggish jaunt, sprinkled with few moments of enlightenment or drama.

Many suggested that the highlight of the first leader’s debate was when one of the party leaders dropped his notes on the floor. In the final debate this week, the most talked-about moment on Twitter was the creaking of the floorboards of the studio.

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That’s not to say that this election hasn’t been fraught. The bickering has been constant, with parties fighting it out to determine who caused—or could cause—the most damage to the country.

At the moment, the Irish government is in a coalition between Fine Gael, led by Taoiseach Kenney, and Labour. Fine Gael swept to victory in the last election, capitalizing on the catastrophic fall from grace of Ireland’s other traditionally dominant party, Fianna Fáil. The latter saw Ireland through the booming Celtic Tiger years, but its policies ultimately led to the collapse of the Irish economy in 2008. As the majority party since 2011, Fine Gael has promoted the idea that it brought Ireland back from a crippling recession with jobs and investment.

While that recovery is evident, the process has not been painless, with the introduction of controversial new property taxes, water charges and income tax, not to mention the transfer of a huge amount of private debt into the public domain. Ireland’s flawed health system has dominated the debates this election, along with the housing crisis and homelessness. Two gangland killings in the capital also brought Irish policing into the spotlight, with the parties fighting over who was to blame for the closure of police stations and a lack of resources.

The constant opinion polls that provide fodder for the political analysts and media pundits have predicted this election will produce a drop in support for Fine Gael to 28 percent and the annihilation of Labour with just 6 percent support. It has also shown a revival in support for Fianna Fáil, which has made a Lazarus-like recovery to 23 percent under its popular leader, Micháel Martin (albeit a lifetime away from the party’s 2007 election win with 41 percent).

Analysts predict there won’t be enough support to reelect the current government and with a split in support for the other parties, there may have to be a second election. In this case, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil may have to enter into government together. Both parties remain vehemently opposed to the idea, despite being ideologically similar in their policies and stances.

That mutual hostility has been festering for almost 100 years, though it may mystify outsiders who don’t have a grasp of Ireland’s peculiar politics. At the beginning of the 20th century, politics in Ireland was dominated by the struggle for independence from the British. The Irish revolutionary independence movement were elected in 1918, but in 1921 split over the terms of the treaty signed with the British. That agreement ended the Anglo-Irish war but partitioned Ireland and left 6 northern counties in the United Kingdom. It also included terms where the government swore an oath of allegiance to the King.

The pro-treaty members ultimately became Fine Gael, while Fianna Fáil emerged from the anti-treaty side. After Ireland’s bitter civil war that political split has endured all the way to the 2016 election, even as the parties now argue over social policies and political credibility rather than civil war ideology. On a local level they may work together, but nationally Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil remain opposed to any kind of coalition.

Civil war politics aside, the two parties have devoted the 2016 campaign to an argument of which side has made more of a mess of the country. Fine Gael centered their campaign on the slogan, “Keep the Recovery Going,” suggesting that voting for any party other than the current government coalition members would lead to chaos. Their candidates also like to repeat the mantra that they were handed a broken country by Fianna Fáil and need another term to complete the repair.

Fianna Fáil chose “An Ireland for All,” a slightly banal and meaningless slogan, but at least it didn’t irk as many voters as Fine Gael’s line. After all, the catastrophic crash in the Irish economy of 2008, which led to the loss of more than 300,000 jobs from 2008 to 2011 and the subsequent wave of emigration of the country’s youth, was caused by a presumably stable Fianna Fáil government. Not surprisingly, the Irish electorate don’t appreciate subtly veiled threats and aren’t convinced that they can trust either side.

In fact, the real question for many Irish voters is no longer parsing the difference between Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, but between those who feel they have a stake in Irish public life and those who feel completely disillusioned and disconnected from the political system. The crash hit every home in the country, if not through job loss or emigration, then through controversial new taxes and levies.

The shift in the Irish psyche is not unlike the one in the United States which has led to the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, candidates propelled by an electorate which feels disenchanted with the political establishment. If 2016 is the year of the outsider in America, it may well be the year of the Independent in Ireland. An Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll on Monday showed support for small parties and independent candidates growing significantly. Nationally, they were at an impressive 28 percent, and in Dublin the figure stood at an astonishing 41 percent.

It would be premature to predict the decline of civil war politics based on these numbers, with certain families staunchly Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil for better or for worse. Besides, the promise of jobs and stability has been the currency both have traded on for decades. In the 2011 election, Fine Gael appealed to the Fianna Fáil base to “lend” their vote to them this time. It remains to be seen whether these votes will return to the party or if Sinn Fein and other increasingly popular left-leaning parties will lure voters away. What is certain is that, as always, Irish people will turn out in high number to have their say tonight. It’s a tradition, and tradition is strong in Ireland. The counting begins at first light on Saturday.

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