Euro elections: Party performance critical along with profile
Candidates or Parties; a mixed picture
Candidates matter but not always in the same way. Sinn Fein has triumphed with relatively unknown candidates but Labour faces a wipe-out in Europe with its low profile candidates. The Labour case is all the more interesting because two of its candidates are incumbent MEPs. Emer Costello and Phil Prendergast went to Europe from the replacement lists but neither candidate has contested European Parliament elections before. The European Parliament elections are often seen as personality contests with parties going outside their ranks to run high profile journalists, representatives from the farming organisations, and most recently the GAA. Having a strong profile among the voters is clearly important but as Sinn Fein has demonstrated today, party performance is also critical. Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ni Riada were both relatively unknown to voters in their respective constituencies at the start of the campaign. Strong performances during the campaign and a buoyant performance by the party was enough to see both candidates in contention to take early seats. The polls had been predicting a poor election for Labour for some time. It’s unknown candidates struggled during the campaign, making a limited impact and, with party support in sharp decline, they faced a perfect storm and both Costello and Prendergast have lost out.
Voters Reject Austerity Policies
Independents and the far left are the big winners in the European Parliament elections. Sinn Fein are set to take three seats and Independent Luke Ming Flanagan is likely to take a seat in Midlands NorthWest. Irish voters are opting for parties with an anti-austerity policy platform. Furthermore, austerity is identified at least in part, as an EU policy and to a degree, austerity overload is underpinning the growth in more critical attitudes to the EU. At least four of the new Irish MEPs will come from the EU critical end of the spectrum. Recent referendums have returned mixed results with the soft ‘yes’ vote not showing up to vote at the Nice I and Lisbon I referendums. Distrust of EU institutions is growing and surveys have shown that at the height of the Euro crisis, a sizeable proportion of Irish, and European voters felt that the EU was going in the wrong policy direction. Polls from across the EU have indicated that up to one third of the new MEPs will hold positions on a spectrum from critical to outright hostile to the EU. There have always been Euro-sceptics in the parliament but they have largely occupied the margins of EU politics until now. EU critics are moving in from the margins in large numbers and pro-EU elites will have to engage with voter concerns or they face ongoing erosion of public support for the EU.
The European Parliament and local elections occur in the middle of the Dail electoral term. They are known as midterm elections and often play out as a referendum on the policies of the current government. The verdict at the polls on Friday was quite negative for the coalition parties. They have both seen their vote share reduced and will have greatly reduced representation levels on councils across the country. Labour have had an especially poor election. However, we need to be careful how far we use the results of the midterm elections to predict the outcome of the next general election. The dynamics vary considerably between national (Dail) and midterm elections. Overall party performance matters but in general small parties and independents have tended to perform better at midterm elections. There are several reasons for this. It is a bit of a cliché but local factors are more influential at local elections. There is a ‘friends and neighbours’ effect with voters more likely to cross party lines to vote for local candidates who are known to them. The local electoral areas are smaller than Dail constituencies and there are more candidates. Over 2000 candidates contested these local elections. Local government policy is an infrequent part of the candidate debates and policy is often inferred from national politics or ignored entirely. This increases the candidate focus of voter decision-making. Additionally, local government is relatively powerless within the Irish system and with little at stake, voters may be more willing to experiment with their vote, in a way that they might not, at a general election.
Midterms give important information about the direction of party support but they cannot be interpreted as guaranteeing a set of outcomes at a future general election.
* Dr Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in the Department of Government in UCC