It appears that the Irish election will take place on February 25. It should be an interesting one. Some basic briefing notes below: commenters should feel free to add stuff/disagree as appropriate.
The Irish party system has long been an anomaly. The two largest parties – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – are sociologically distinct (they have different relationships to the state, and different clienteles in the middle class) but are both right of center. A PR-STV voting system coexisted for a long time with a “two and a half party” system in which Fianna Fail faced off against an explicit or implicit coalition between Fine Gael and the Labour party. More recently, greater fragmentation and the rise of smaller parties (the Progressive Democrats, the Green Party) have made it nearly impossible for Fianna Fail to gain an overall majority of seats, leading to more fluid coalitional politics.
Fianna Fail is perhaps closest to French Gaullism in its combination of nationalist ideology and right-of-center populism – it has dominated Irish politics since the 1930s. Its rival (the original party of Irish government), Fine Gael has traditionally been more internationalist (in various ways, some more salutary than others), and has rarely been faulted for its populism (the party’s faults lie in the contrary direction). The Labour party has never really succeeded in challenging the two larger parties – it has however been in several coalition governments (only one of which was with Fianna Fail). There is a Green party, which was part of the government coalition until yesterday. The right-liberal (in the European sense – think Germany’s FDP) Progressive Democrats met with disaster in the last elections and are dead (Mary Harney, their former leader, has announced her retirement from politics). Sinn Fein – long associated with the IRA – hoped to make a breakthrough in the 2007 elections and failed to. It is not an attractive coalition partner for Fine Gael (which has a very strong attachment to the ‘law and order’ arm of the state), or Fianna Fail (which has rationally feared that Sinn Fein, if legitimated, could eat its lunch). The Green party will need to be very lucky not to be wiped out in the forthcoming elections.
Irish political commentators are getting very excited about the possibility of an epochal election. For once, they are probably right. Fianna Fail, over much of the last fifteen years, was lucky enough to reap the electoral benefits of the Irish economic miracle. It is now about to reap the whirlwind unleashed by the collapse of that miracle. The economic crisis of 2008 was escalated to calamity by fiscal imprudence (the Irish government relied heavily on revenues from property transactions), lackadaisical supervision of financial companies (which had been seen as a benefit in attracting international financial firms), and, most of all, by the government’s decision to guarantee all bank debts, and refusal to row back on this commitment when it became clear what that entailed (the state’s assumption of vast amounts of private debt). Ireland’s effective state of near-bankruptcy can be traced back in large part to feckless decisions made by the current government. The existence of strong political connections between Fianna Fail and the most profligate bits of the Irish banking sector has not helped the party’s image either.
Fianna Fail, and its coalition partners the Green Party, have been aware for some time that they faced a beating at the polls. They have been torn between trying to put this punishment off as long as possible, in the hope that things would change, and going to the polls earlier, in the hope that some of the blame would stick to the opposition parties when they entered into government and had to make unhappy choices (this helps explain the Irish government’s unwillingness to enter into negotiations on debt with the EU and IMF – the government parties had hoped that their successors would have to swallow that unpleasant pill).
However, the precise manner in which they are going to the country is likely to exacerbate their problems even further. A leadership ‘heave’ against Brian Cowen (then the leader of Fianna Fail and currently the Taoiseach (prime minister) petered out last week, when it became clear that a majority of Fianna Fail TDs (members of the Dail – the Irish Parliament) felt that a leadership change would not help avert the disaster.
However, shortly after winning the vote within his party, Cowen tried to ‘pull a stroke’ (in Irish parlance) by having a number of senior ministers, who were retiring from politics, resign their posts, so that some of their younger colleagues could be appointed ministers, improving their chances of re-election. The gambit misfired horribly. Fianna Fail up-and-comers did not see association with the government as a source of electoral advantage, while Cowen’s coalition partners, the Green Party, were furious. This led in short order to Cowen resigning his position as party leader (but not as Taoiseach), and the Green Party joining the opposition benches. The government, together with the main opposition parties, have agreed a short timetable for legislation associated with the IMF bailout to be passed, after which the Dail will be dissolved.
So Ireland’s main political party, Fianna Fail is heading into the polls leaderless, demoralized, disorganized, and deeply unpopular. It is effectively being forced to run a leadership contest simultaneously with an election campaign. Its funding machinery is in tatters (it has not been able to run events for large donors as in the past, and local party members have refused to raise money through the traditional means). No-one believes that the party has any chance of winning re-election to the government. People are instead debating the likely extent of the debacle, and its consequences for the Irish party system.
If – as seems plausible – Fianna Fail is beaten into third place, this will make Irish politics much less predictable than in the past. There will no longer be a ‘natural’ party of government around which coalitions are formed. Instead, even if Fianna Fail makes a significant recovery, it will be one of two or three parties that can plausibly play a substantial role. It is likely that Ireland will move closer to a continental system of coalition politics, of the kind that its voting system would seem to encourage.
It is also quite possible that under these circumstances, Fianna Fail would disintegrate, removing the anomaly from Irish party politics. A nearly permanent role in government is a wonderful glue to join together ideological tendencies that would otherwise be distinct; if that glue dissolves than the party itself may decohere. This is especially plausible given the major changes in Irish society over the last twenty years – tribal identities are not what they once were, and Fianna Fail, once out of government, is likely to find that the traditional loyalties it once relied on are wearing thin. One could easily see Fianna Fail’s working class and lower middle class support being split by Labour and Sinn Fein, with the upper middle class rump going over to Fine Gael. In some ways this would be surprising – Fine Gael has been the weaker of the two right of center parties for a very long time. Yet just because of its inability to broaden its appeal through a broadly-aimed populism, Fine Gael may have a stronger core identity in times of ideological crisis.
A third possibility is that Fianna Fail will be able to survive through temporarily reverting to being a coalition of TDs rather than a national party. One extremely safe prediction is that Fianna Fail TDs in risky seats (and few seats are not risky) will be doing as much as they possibly can to disassociate themselves from the government and the national party. This may work to limit the damage – Irish politics are strongly clientelistic, and it is perfectly possible that voters will be more swayed by the specific benefits that they have gotten from their local Fianna Fail TD than by outrage at the sins of the party at the national level. It is quite possible that opinion polls measuring support for the party in general may be substantially estimating voters’ willingness to vote for specific TDs.
I’m not close enough to Irish politics any more to speculate as to which of these scenarios (or other scenarios that I’ve left out) is more or less likely. Much of the devil will be in the detail of voting under a PR-STV system. I don’t know of anybody with much of an idea of how the current economic crisis is likely to change the ways in which Irish voters allot their second, third and fourth preferences. Yet these preferences are likely to have a very important role indeed in determining outcomes in this election and in future ones. I’ll blog more on this as more material presents itself.
(A slightly different version of this post is up at The Monkey Cage )