The mist is clearing and the shape of the new political landscape is emerging following the most inconclusive general election in Ireland’s history. While counting is still ongoing three days later – thanks to Ireland’s single transferrable vote form of proportional representation – and the final exact numbers are not yet in, it is clear that the exiting Fine Gael-Labour coalition got an absolute drubbing from an electorate sick of austerity.
Fine Gael managed to squander the largest ever majority of any party in the history of the state, collapsing from 76 to around 52 seats. They misguidedly roped in consultants from the UK’s Conservative party, thinking that they could repeat that party’s success by focusing on messages of overseeing Europe’s fastest-growing economy for five years and the promise of tax cuts.
Where the Irish elections did parallel the UK’s however was in the fate of the junior coalition partner, Labour, whose vote collapsed and is likely to return only seven of the 33 outgoing seats. Labour was punished by voters who felt betrayed by the introduction of water charges, and Fine Gael badly misjudged the mood of the country that wants to see more money invested in public services such as the health system rather than in tax cuts. There is also widespread anger that the FG-Labour coalition made the man in the street pay for the largesse of the boom years while the bankers and big bosses got off scot free.
Sinn Féin did well in mopping up a lot of the Labour vote and will see its representation in Dáil Éireann soar to about 23 seats. A resurgent Fianna Fáil – which suffered its own electoral meltdown five years ago for overseeing the biggest economic boom-and-bust in Irish history – has done well with a projected 43 seats. Minor parties and independents are likely to take a further 33.
And this is where it gets interesting. While coalition government is the norm in Ireland, on Friday the Irish electorate gave no party a clear mandate to govern. Ireland is a bit of an anomaly in Europe in that both its largest parties are of the Christian Democratic tradition on the centre right and are ideologically extremely similar. The obvious outcome being touted was for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to at last overcome the civil war divisions that split them almost a century ago and form a grand coalition, something akin to the CDU-CSU coalition in Germany.
But the consequence of this would be to make Sinn Féin the official opposition of Ireland, something that neither party finds particularly palatable, and which could do them both long-term electoral damage. So the compromise that seems to be emerging as the winter mists clear over the Emerald Isle this morning is for Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny to continue as Taoiseach (prime minister) in a minority government supported by Fianna Fáil and Labour. It means that the voters won’t be going back to the polls in a few months, but the 32nd Dáil may be one of Ireland’s most short lived.
George Candon is an Irish national and a Senior Director at FTI Consulting in Brussels.