How people elect parliaments
Polling in advance of the upcoming Irish elections indicate the historic possibility of the progressive nationalist party Sinn Féin becoming the official opposition.
Éire is presently governed by a powerful coalition of centre right party Fine Gael and its junior partner the Labour Party. Polls show a slight easing in Fine Gael’s 2011 election result and a quite significant drop in support for Labour, but still sufficient support for the coalition to remain in government.
Support for the official opposition Fianna Fáil party – historically Eire’s most successful party but brutally ousted in 2011 – has barely recovered from its 19% in 2011.
Sinn Féin, by contrast, has risen in public support from 9% to around 19%. With its support base more concentrated, it may win more seats than Fianna Fail, entitling it to become the official opposition.
2011 was the first Irish election since 1932 when Fianna Fáil did not win the most seats in the Irish lower house, the Dáil Éireann. It’s election result – just 20 seats across 43 electoral divisions – was made worse by it’s support base being fairly evenly spread across the country.
Overall, the polling indicates that the main shift since 2011 is a 10% loss of support from the Labour party, and a roughly equivalent rise in support for Sinn Féin.
The Irish political spectrum is somewhat unusual. The two main parties are generally regarded as slightly right-of-centre; Fine Gael being somewhat further to the right. But neither party would be regarded as strongly right-wing.
The progressive vote in Éire is shared between Labour, Sinn Féin, minor left-wing parties, and to some extent the progressive wing of Fianna Fáil. Independents also do well in Irish elections.
Curiously, Fine Gael and the Labour parties are traditional coalition allies, a connection that emerged during the long years when Fianna Fáil dominated Irish politics.
Labour surged to it’s strongest support ever in 2011 as voters deserted Fianna Fáil. These voters may now be dissatisfied with Labour’s role in the coalition with the right of politics. Their current loss of public support resembles what happened to the UK Liberal Democrats as a result of their 2010-15 coalition with the Conservatives.
Voters turning to Sinn Féin, however, is a historic shift. The party, long associated with the IRA and Ireland’s troubled history, is both nationalistic and progressive, an unusual combination.
The slight rise in Fianna Fáil’s support may see it rise from 20 seats to around 25 (the Dáil is being shrunk by 8 seats overall at this election due to a major review of boundaries).
But Sinn Féin’s rise in support may see it also increase it’s Dáil numbers to around 25 seats, benefiting from a tighter concentration of support in specific constituencies.
Sinn Féin support by county, 2011 elections
By contrast, the Labour party’s loss of support should see it fall to around 25 seats. That would leave the three major parties other than Fine Gael on almost identical numbers of seats.
With the Fine Gael-Labour coalition almost certain to retain office, the 2016 election’s most significant contest may simply be which party will form the opposition.
If Sinn Féin can claim that role it could result in a significant re-alignment of progressive politics in Éire.