The Irish general election will take place on 26 February, the country’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, has said, as he dissolved the Dáil and kicked off one of the shortest election battles in Irish political history.
Political scientists, election number crunchers and bookmakers are predicting that Kenny will make history by being returned as Taoiseach.
While the odds are in favour of Kenny becoming Taoiseach again and thus taking the salute at the military parade on Easter Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of the Rising in Dublin against British rule, opinion polls indicate his party will fall short of an overall majority.
All the recent polls and the predictions from academics and experts point to a Fine Gael-Labour coalition propped up with support of at least six Independent TDs (MPs).
Prof Michael Gallagher and Mike Marsh, Irish political scientists at Trinity College Dublin and the authors of a book on how Ireland voted in the last 2011 general election, said it was almost certain that Fine Gael would be the largest party.
Gallagher said: “The only pre-declared willing coalition is Fine Gael and Labour, which on current polls is likely to be some way short of a majority, so for them to remain in office they would need to bring in another party or come to an arrangement with quite a number of Independents, unless their support grows between now and the election, which is possible. In short, there is a lot of uncertainty.”
The key issue of the campaign will be the management of an economy that took a severe battering after the 2008 financial crash and forced the previous government prior to the 2011 election, led by the rival Fianna Fáil party, to hand over the nation’s finances to the International Monetary Fund and the EU.
Kenny and his Fine Gael party will argue that they have presided over a an exit from the IMF-EU bailout, an almost 50% drop in unemployment, economic growth that outperformed all its major EU partners, and a recovery in consumer spending.
The junior partner in the coalition however, the Irish Labour party, faces accusations of betraying its working class urban base by agreeing to austerity cuts and the implementation of water charges – a latter measure demanded by the IMF and EU in the bailout.
On the prospects of a British Liberal Democrat electoral style meltdown for Irish Labour, Gallagher pointed out that there was no sign of recovery for the party “on any opinion poll evidence, but Labour themselves believe that they will rise to 10% or more and win 15-plus seats rather than the eight or so that many currently predict for them.”
The veteran observer of the Irish political landscape questioned the idea that a new coalition reliant on non-party Independents would produce an inherently unstable government.
“Minority governments supported by Independents have a respectable track record here. Such a government, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, led by Bertie Ahern, lasted for a full five-year term 1997–2002.
“The likelihood is that the next government will not have to make the unpopular tax-raising and expenditure-cutting decisions that the last one did. So with a reasonable degree of political skill a government should be able to survive with the support of Independents – provided there are not too many Independents involved, as obviously a government that relies on two or three is in a better position than one that needs the steady support of eight or 10.
“Indeed, one possible outcome is a single-party Fine Gael minority government that is supported by Independents, though this would need Fine Gael to win more votes than the opinion polls currently show,” Gallagher added.
Marsh said one of the key questions in voters’ minds would be if the tax rises, spending cuts and other measures required to restore the nation’s finances were fairly spread across Irish society over the last five years.
“I do think people acknowledge that some austerity was necessary, but was it fair austerity? One narrative is that the recovery is for Dublin and for the middle classes, and that is certainly the group behind Fine Gael’s recovery.”
He also agreed that a coalition dependent on the non-party aligned deputies could survive. Some opinion polls suggest that up to 16 independent deputies could be elected to the next Dáil.
In terms of stability, Marsh added: “Yes, there are many such examples. Even so, it’s worth nothing that government lost about a dozen of its own party supporters in the last five years. Money to spend could help in Independents’ areas but it also raises expectations.”
Even election number-crunchers with Fianna Fáil backgrounds (the main rival party to Fine Gael for most of the Republic’s history) also believe it is certain Kenny will be re-elected Taoiseach.
Noel Whelan, a former adviser to Fianna Fáil and author of The Tallyman’s Guide Campaign Guidebook – Election 2016, has predicted that a rebooted Fine Gael-Labour coalition would be between eight to 12 seats short of a working majority.
Whelan said he was less convinced that the new administration would go a full five-year term given its possible dependancy on independents’ support.
“There have been precedents of a government working for a full five years shored up by independents or small parties, most recently with Bertie Ahern, but a two-party government relying on another 12 or more independent or smaller party deputies seems unworkable,” he said.
He added that Sinn Féin could come close to returning numbers in the high 20s to the next Dáil but that Fianna Fáil is highly unlikely to enter into an alternative coalition with Gerry Adams’ party.