Analysis

Prime Minister Edna Kenny's Fine Gael comes top in opinion polls two weeks before Irish general elections.

Elections in Europe

Corinne Deloy

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16 February 2016
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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

On 3rd February, Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Edna Kenny (Fine Gael, FG) went to Aras an Uachterain, the official residence of President of the Republic Michael Higgins (Labour Party) to ask him to dissolve the lower chamber of Parliament, the Dail Eireann. This dissolution leads to the calling of a general election, now set for 26th February.

A few months after Greece, Portugal and Spain, Ireland, a country that benefitted in 2010 from an international aid plan of €85 billion from the IMF and the European Union, is therefore, in turn, called to the polls. The election will be focussed on one main question: what should be done with the benefits of the economic recovery?

According to the latest opinion poll carried out by the Paddy Power institute and published on 10th February, Fine Gael is set to win 30% of the vote, ahead of Fianna Fail (FF) with 18% of the vote and Sinn Fein (SF), 17%. Labour is set to win 8% of the vote. All the other parties are on less than 5%.

Fine Gael will probably therefore have difficult in repeating its coalition with the Labour Party. In view of these polls, three potential scenarios become clear: the formation by Fine Gael of a minority government which would have to deal with Parliament, the decision to extend the current government coalition to include other parties or independent MPs and, finally, the calling of another general election in order to obtain a real majority. The formation of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition would appear highly improbable in view of the number of times the 2 parties have gone head to head over the course of the past 5 years. Since 1989, Ireland has always been run by a coalition government. "2016 could be the year of an electoral earthquake in Ireland due to the emergence of small parties and the presence of many independents" said Muiris MacCartaigh, lecturer in political science at Queen's University, Belfast, who believes that the next government will be difficult to form.

The campaign includes 2 televised debates: the debate on 15th February will bring together all party leaders on the TV channel RTE and on 23rd only those of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, the Labour party and Sinn Fein will be included in the debate.

Fine Gael dominates the debates

The electoral campaign is short (three weeks), which should be to Fine Gael's benefit. This party has two advantages over its rivals. Firstly, a clear message, "Our proposal is to renew the government formed by Fine Gael and the Labour Party" is outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny's repeated message. Then, Fine Gael is virtually the only one to offer a political vision for Ireland. The party, which has chosen as its campaign slogan "Our hard work has paid off, let's keep the recovery going" hope to win 30% of the vote on 26th February.

"Five years' ago our economy was on a cliff edge. Now our public finances are back on the rails, we have returned to growth and the country is no longer dependent on international aid" points out Enda Kenny, who is campaigning on the country's good economic results. Ireland is indeed the country with the highest growth rate in the European Union, with 4.5% forecast this year after 6% in 2015. Its budget is now back in balance (Dublin even voted for a stimulus budget, validated by Brussels just a few weeks' ago), public debt is down (107.75% in 2015 compared to 111.15% in 2011), consumption is up and unemployment is falling (8.6% in February 2016 compared to 10.1% in February 2015) and is even at its lowest rate since 2008. On 5th February the Fitch rating agency raised Ireland's rating, giving it an A.

So the outgoing Taoiseach presents himself as the guarantor of the necessary stability and continuity required in order to finish the work in hand.

Enda Kenny promises more jobs, and therefore higher wages, and more public services. He is presenting a programme of economic stimulus, focussed notably on health and housing, which are two of the main concerns of the Irish people. Health minister Leo Varadkar (FG) has thus promised to introduce objectives in terms of waiting times in hospitals and doctors' surgeries, to reintroduce the reimbursement of dental care, to extend maternity leave and to develop structures for the elderly. A vast programme to build social housing is also amongst Fine Gael's projects. The party is also promising to reduce taxes and to bring back to Ireland, by 2021, 70,000 people who have left the country. 5,000 returns are already planned for this year.

Although opinion polls put Fine Gael well in the lead for the general elections of 26th February, the Labour Party, its partner in government, and drastically down in the opinion polls compared to its results in 2011 (8% in 2016 compared to 19.5% in 2011), has many questions to ask itself. A large part of its electorate blame the party for not having defended the welfare state and for having agreed to austerity measures over the past 5 years.

Other political forces in play

The policy undertaken by Enda Kenny's government has not been without pain. It has left its mark on a section of the Irish population who have had to accept many sacrifices and many of whom say they are now ready to give their vote to new political parties such as the Alliance Against Austerity-People Before Profit (AAA-PBP), the Social Democrats, a party founded in 2015 by three independent MPs Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall, on the left of the political spectrum or Renua Ireland, a right-wing party led by Lucinda Creighton, a former member of Fine Gael. This party is in favour of the introduction of a single rate tax of 23% for VAT, income tax and corporate tax and for the three strikes law, which allows the courts to pronounce life prison sentences on criminals convicted for the third time of an offence and/or a crime.

There are numerous independent candidates in the running for the general elections. Together they are credited with 35 seats.

Sinn Fein, which has recently moved towards the centre, is up in the opinion polls. This extreme left-wing party could become Ireland's second party, which would be a first. Sinn Fein won 15.2% of first preference votes and 159 seats (+105) in the local elections held on 23rd May 2014, a remarkable performance. The two parties in government lost seats in these elections: -105 for Fine Gael (24% of the vote, 235 seats) and 81 for the Labour Party (7.2% of the vote and 51 seats). Fianna Fail came top in the elections with 25.3% of the vote (267 seats).

"The general election on 26th February gives people the choice between a fair and egalitarian society or the continuation of the policies implemented by Enda Kenny's government over these past 5 years" declared Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams. The party could suffer somewhat, however, from its links with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a republican paramilitary organisation which is fighting for the unification of Ireland.

Finally, Fianna Fail is still relatively low in the opinion polls. The party hopes to win between 35 and 40 seats on 26th February. Many Irish people consider it to be responsible for the serious economic crisis of 2010. This general election is, moreover, the first in Irish history in which this party is not amongst the top two.

Although it is critical of government policy and of what it calls the abandonment of public service, Fianna Fail is not giving any clear message and is not offering any policy as an alternative to the one that has been implemented by Fine Gael and the Labour Party over the past 5 years.

The Irish political system

The Oireachtas (parliament) has two houses. It comprises the Dail Eireann (House of Representatives) which, to date, had 166 members elected for 5 years from 43 circumscriptions. The number of members has now been reduced and, on 26th February, the Irish people (and any British people living in Ireland and registered on electoral lists) will elect 158 teachtai dala (MPs) in 40 circumscriptions (3 less than in the elections on 25th February 2011).

Each circumscription sends 3, 4 or 5 MPs. These are elected by proportional representation using the single transferable vote system. The voter chooses from a list of candidates the one (or ones) to whom he/she wants to give his/her vote, by order of preference. The voter writes the number 1 against his/her first preference candidates and then, if he/she wishes, 2, 3, 4, etc. against the names of the other candidates on the list. Calculation of the electoral quotient, i.e. of the minimum number of votes that a candidate must obtain in order to be elected, is the first operation carried out when votes are being counted. This quotient corresponds to all the votes cast divided by the number of seats to be filled (3, 4 or 5 depending on the circumscription) plus one. Any candidate who collects this number of votes is elected. Any excess votes that he/she has obtained are then distributed between the candidates chosen in second place.

The Irish are very proud of their voting system, which they share with only two other countries in the world (Malta and Australia), to the point that they have twice refused (1959 and 1968) to have it changed. The single transferable vote system was written into the Irish Constitution in 1937 and its modification or abandonment are possible only by means of a referendum. Allowing for true representation of political parties, the transferable vote system is sometimes criticised for the high degree of competition that it gives rise to between candidates in the same party. MPs sometimes regret that this method of voting obliges them to devote a great deal of time to the individual demands of their fellow citizens and prevents them from concentrating on national political matters.

A new law voted in 2012 now obliges political parties to present at least 30% of women (40% within 7 years) in general elections on penalty of seeing the grant they receive from the State reduced by 50%.

The Seanad Eireann, parliament's upper house, comprises 60 members, 43 of whom are elected by proportional representation (using the single vote system) by five major bodies made up of MPs (outgoing senators and newly elected MPs) and local elected representatives (county councillors and county town councillors) representing various sectors of society (culture, education, agriculture, work, industry, commerce and public administration). 11 members of the Seanad Eireann are appointed by the Prime Minister and 6 by citizens registered on electoral lists with a degree from the National University of Ireland or the University of Dublin (Trinity College).

The Seanad Eireann, which will not be dissolved before the election of the new lower house, is traditionally elected at the latest 90 days after the Dail Eireann.

The Irish government can comprise up to 15 members, 2 of whom can be members of the Seanad Eireann, and all the others must be elected MPs.

7 political parties are currently represented in the Dail Eireann:

– Fine Gael (FG) (Gaels Clan), outgoing Prime Minister Enda Kenny's party, was created in 1933 and is located on the centre-right of the political spectrum, it has 76 seats.

– The Labour Party, which is a member of the outgoing governmental coalition, founded in 1912 and led by Joan Burton, Tanaiste (deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Social Protection, has 37 seats.

– Fianna Fail (FF) (Soldiers of destiny in Gaelic), a right wing party founded in 1926 and ledby Micheal Martin, has 20 seats.

– Sinn Fein (SF) (Ourselves in Gaelic) has the particular characteristic of existing (and participating in elections) in two European Union States: Ireland and the United Kingdom. Sinn Fein is an extreme left-wing nationalist party led by Gerry Adams, and has 14 seats.

– The Socialist Party (SP), an extreme left-wing party has 2 seats.

– People Before Profits (PBP), an extreme left-wing party, has 2 seats.

– Workers and Unemployed Action (WUA), an extreme left-wing party led Seamus Healey, has 1 seat.

The Irish also elect their President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage. However the President has only a power of representation. Elected every 7 years by direct universal suffrage, his mandate can be renewed only once. The current Head of State, Michael Higgins, has been in office since 27th October 2011.

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