Poll outcome could leave Ireland ungovernable | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 25.02.2016
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Poll outcome could leave Ireland ungovernable

Ireland goes to the polls this Friday in an election that could see it follow the mould of Spain - and leave itself ungovernable in a rally against the status quo. Gavan Reilly reports from Dublin.

For a long time it seemed Ireland might be on the cusp of breaking the European mould - and returning a government which had presided over years of painful austerity. But just ahead of polling in a crucial general election, it seems Ireland will follow the lead of its bailed-out Iberian cousins - by returning no clear government at all.

Five years ago the center-right Fine Gael and center-left Labour were elected with a combined 55 percent share of the vote. But in three polls last weekend, that support had shrank to 35 percent - well short of what would be needed for a parliamentary majority. Fine Gael, on 29 percent, has suffered fairly minor losses. At 6 percent, Labour is headed toward wipe-out.

The last election took place in early 2011, in the immediate aftermath of Ireland entering its humiliating Troika bailout. In exchange for 67.5 billion euros ($74.5 billion) in loans at a punishing interest rate, Ireland signed up for major public service cutbacks, increases to sales tax, and unpopular measures like water charges and local property taxes. The plan may have been largely designed by their predecessors in Fianna Fáil - which then lost three-quarters of its seats in an unparalleled election rout - but Fine Gael and Labour took to implementing the plan with a gusto that disappointed many of their voters. Even more divisively, they also paid out (in full) to all senior bondholders at Ireland's banks, which the taxpayer had already spent 64 billion euros saving from oblivion.

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Their support since then, particularly that of Labour, has fallen for two predominant reasons. The first and more obvious one is the antipathy over those austerity measures. Last Saturday, tens of thousands marched on Dublin in a pre-election rally demanding the repeal of domestic water charges, one of the few recurrent charges surviving from the austerity era. In a key acid test of public anger, 39 percent of all homes subject to the new water charges have yet to pay a single bill.

Those extra bills "pushed many people over the edge," according to Hugh O'Connell, political editor of news website TheJournal.ie. "In particular, Labour made a number of pre-election pledges on a campaign ad that they ended up breaking once entering government," he told DW.

But the other reason for the decline is that the three-week election campaign has largely been waged on the basis of Ireland's economic turnaround. On its face the harsh medicine has worked for the Irish economy, now growing at an annual rate of 7 percent, the fastest in the EU. Unemployment peaked at 15.1 percent a year after the election; this month it has fallen to 8.6 percent and the government claims it will have returned Ireland to full employment within four years.

But that economic recovery has not been evenly spread. The headline economic figures mask other less-flattering truths: almost one-in-six are at risk of poverty, and 29 percent experience two recognized forms of financial deprivation. The number of patients on trolleys in crowded hospital emergency wards remains stubbornly high, And though unemployment has fallen, the official figures are masked by tens of thousands being placed onto state-backed internship schemes which see their welfare payments topped up by 50 euros a week. Only half of these interns end up graduating to a paid role afterwards, and few (if any) of those new jobs are based in rural areas that bear the scars of mass emigration.

unfinished buildings © Getty Images/P. Macdiarmid

Much has been made of the Celtic tiger roaring back, however the economic recovery has not reached everyone

Still hurting

This means Fine Gael's election campaign, waged almost solely on the economy and with the slogan 'Let's Keep the Recovery Going,' has jarred with many voters. For all the talk of stirring headline figures, a recent nationwide survey showed over half of Irish voters felt no sign of a recovery at all. Why, therefore, would they flock to the polls to return a government whose 'recovery' has left them behind? And why, furthermore, would they return the junior partner which was previously elected on the basis of softening the blade of Fine Gael's cuts, but whose own leader then implemented cuts to child benefit, and unemployment assistance for young adults?

But yet, the coalition still stands a reasonable chance of re-election - largely because no coherent and plausible alterative government has emerged. Support for Fianna Fáil, the centrist party that presided over a speculator boom before mishandling a spectacular crash, has been rooted at just under 20 percent for almost three years. The next alternative, the leftist Sinn Féin, is not doing any better.

Together they could feasibly challenge the outgoing coalition, but they have already ruled each other out - Fianna Fáil because of Sinn Féin's links to the IRA, which purportedly retains a paramilitary presence in Northern Ireland; Sinn Féin because Fianna Fáil presided over the onset of austerity in the first place. Meanwhile, an increasing chunk of support is taken up either by unaffiliated independent politicians and a slew of new smaller parties.

man holding papers copyright: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

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"Ireland used to be known as a 'two-and-a-half party' system," says Paraic Gallagher, political correspondent at national talk radio station Newstalk, explaining the previous strength of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and the lesser support of Labour. "But so many lost faith with Fianna Fáil over the collapse - and now with Fine Gael and Labour's record a whole range of other parties have mushroomed and fractured the vote."

"That fracturing," he told DW, "means it takes more ingredients than ever before" to form a coalition with a parliamentary majority.

Without another ready-made administration waiting in the wings - and with none of the three most popular parties willing to govern together - many could support the outgoing government not out of loyalty, but simply because it is the least-worst option.

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