The Irish political landscape in the run up to the 2016 General Election is one defined by a tension between change and continuity. For the first time since the foundation of the state, the general election will not resemble an effective two horse race, or be contested with a clear front runner. Instead the election will be fought by a number of equally matched middle-sized parties, and various new or smaller parties. The dynamic shift away from the established parties and towards new or more radical parties is a signal that a large proportion of the electorate is calling for a new way of doing politics.
Fine Gael will put themselves forward to be renewed in government after a turbulent term in office over the past five years. The positive enthusiasm that saw them elected as the largest party in 2011 with 76 seats and 36% of the vote has steadily been eroded away. The trend charted from polls over the last year has seen their popularity settle around the 20-25% mark, with the most recent MRBI poll placing Fine Gael support at 24%. The nation’s modest economic recovery; and their attempt to balance the budget books will find favour with their traditionally well-off or conservative leaning voter base. Fianna Fail has stagnated around similar levels of core loyal supporters, and the two old parties may find themselves wedged together as potential coalition allies. But undoubtedly Fine Gael’s campaign platform will stand on stability over change, tradition over new ideas.
The party expected to gain most from the opposition to ‘politics as usual’ is Sinn Fein, who have become the left wing voice of opposition and are polling a popularity of 25%. Their voters tend to come from groups left behind by the touted economic revival, and those who the effects of austerity cut deepest. But these groups like the struggling middle, the unemployed, the least-well off, and the youth can be unreliable in consistently turning out the vote. And the shadow of the violent Republican past cast by Gerry Adams will hurt Sinn Fein in trying to compete for the swing voter. Critics would say the party’s support will wilt come polling day, but for once there seems to be a real determination among its potential voters to turnout for change in 2016.
The Labour party in contrast has suffered a cataclysmic fall from the dizzy heights of their electoral success in 2011. The party has seen their support base undercut and dissipate beneath their feet since its decision to enter government as a minority partner with Fine Gael. The “democratic revolution” that originally inspired many Labour votes has failed to materialize into real change, as many of Eamon Gilmore’s key promises ended up on the coalition policy cutting room floor. The inability of Labour to achieve the new type of politics promised to their voter base has quickly seen the party’s support plummet dangerously towards post-election insignificance. Labour’s rise and capitulation highlights the volatile combative process between the forces of ‘new’ and ‘old’ currently playing out across the Irish political theatre.
Several new parliamentary players have emerged from the fallout in the dominance of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and Labour in the political spectrum. Renua Ireland, Lucinda Creighton’s ambitious, open, and whip-less new party seeks to reboot politics from the centre-right side of the ideological spectrum. Yet the most active and vociferous protest against the traditional order of business has come from the Right2Water campaign. The national marches and the local community group’s heated opposition to the water charges as an anti-austerity issue is an example of the animosity from a large section of society towards the current political policy consensus. The potential for a United Left Alliance 2.0 to tap into this active discontent would form another serious player in the anticipated election. Other emerging shoots include a loose issue-alliance of independents lead by Shane Ross, and the beginnings of a niche Green party comeback. The shift in the swing voter towards new and smaller parties or more radical parties like Sinn Féin will shape the Irish political system after this election as unlike one ever seen before.
The political landscape on which the general election will be contested next year will be one that is not fought through the perspective of major competing parties and personalities. But instead a campaign underlined by the emergence of two overarching groups: those seeking to maintain and conserve the current status quo, and the currently disenfranchised voters who seek substantive change and a new form of politics.