Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said recently that he hopes the next general election would be in May 2020. This will bring an end to a Dáil that over the course of four years has gone from being cheered as the beginning of ‘new politics’ to being described as a ‘do nothing Dáil’. The next question to be answered is what will the upcoming election change?
The 2016 election threw out almost a century of Irish political tradition. It did this by blessing neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil with the means to comfortably form a majority, forcing, for the first time in Irish history, the two big parties to rely on each other with a confidence and supply agreement. Many thought this would bring about a new era of Irish politics that wouldn’t be as centred around the ‘big two.’ However, the addition of several new smaller parties and Independents only ended up depriving the Dáil of the ability to create a clear consensus for any new legislation. There wasn’t even the hope that an election would bring about significant change as polling showed that any future Dáil would face the same problems as its predecessor.
This changed on Varadkar’s ascension to leader of Fine Gael. He quickly built up a comfortable 10-point lead over Micheál Martin and looked to be on a safe path to return as Taoiseach. However, he avoided an early election for several reasons. Firstly, in order to avoid leaving Ireland leaderless with the ever-present threat of Brexit looming over the Irish economy. Secondly, he didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of Theresa May, who based on positive polling rushed into an early election only to suffer a humiliating defeat and lose her majority.
However, this decision seems to have been a mistake. Since early this year Fine Gael’s comfortable lead has shrunk quite considerably, with some polls giving Fianna Fáil a five-point lead. This, if true, could effectively exclude Varadkar from a second term as Taoiseach. Currently polling puts Fine Gael in the mid to high twenties, still an improvement on its 2016 result. This could see them take just under a third of Dáil seats in the coming election. Martin has gained at Varadkar’s expense with him also polling in the mid to high twenties. While their polling numbers are more variable then Fine Gael’s they do trend higher, giving Fianna Fáil reason to be optimistic about getting a third of Dáil seats.
This split would give the smaller parties considerable power as potential king makers as neither party will achieve a complete majority. Sinn Féin are likely be the third largest party in the Dáil. The issue is that Sinn Féin is notoriously hard to poll for and as such their popularity varies wildly between the low-teens and the low-twenties. Their first preference votes will probably be in the mid-teens which will see their proportion of the vote rise slightly since 2016 and they can be hopeful about getting their percent of seats into the high teens.
Polling for smaller parties is slightly harder to predict as their support is highly affected by the margin of error and as such may be over or underrepresented in the polls. The Greens received an unexpected surge in support in the run up to the European election and are now polling around 7%. This could see them take more than five percent of the seats in the Dáil. On the other hand, Labour and The Social Democrats haven’t seen much growth since the 2016 election with their support stagnating at about 5% and 2% respectively. This will leave Labour struggling to maintain the four percent of seats that they currently have and The Social Democrats may not even get a percent. Solidarity–People Before Profit has seen their support fade slightly since 2016 shrink to below 2%. Finally, the various Independents support levels hovers around the low teens, which is similar to their result in the 2016.
So, what is likely to come of all this? The easiest avenue into government for either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael would be to form a coalition with Sinn Féin, who have indicated that they would be willing to go into government with either party. However, both leaders have repeatedly ruled out any potential coalition with Sinn Féin in the near future. Another potential route to power for Varadkar or Martin would be another confidence and supply agreement with their counterpart in the slightly smaller party. However, this could be seen as a defeat by the parliamentary party of whomever didn’t get into power, potentially spelling the end of their career. There has also has been talk of a broad left coalition among some circles but this is unlikely as even if it has the unwavering support of all the smaller parties and Independents in the Dáil, which in of itself is dubious: it would struggle to get the numbers to form a government. Some have even suggested a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael which would give them one of the biggest majorities in the history of the state, but the chances of this happening are extremely low.
The most likely outcome seems to be Fianna Fáil forming a coalition government with the support of the Greens, Labour, Social Democrats and a variety of Independents to form a majority. This is what Micheál Martin is hoping for with his attempt to woo various centre left parties with his claim that a Fianna Fáil government would ‘embrace social democratic principles’. However, this government would be potentially quite weak as it would depend on several smaller parties and Independents with only a slim majority. As another election becomes more likely the only certainty is that the two dominant parties in Irish politics will ramp up election plans in the hopes of leading the 33rd Dáil.
Conall Clarke – Politics Writer