Sunday 25 September 2016

Post-crash cynical voters more likely to move away from established parties

Published 07/01/2016 | 02:30

There may be trouble ahead for established parties if European trends take hold. Above, Taoiseach Enda Kenny visits the home of Gertie Dunning in Carrickobreen, in Athlone, during the flooding. Photo: Steve Humphreys
There may be trouble ahead for established parties if European trends take hold. Above, Taoiseach Enda Kenny visits the home of Gertie Dunning in Carrickobreen, in Athlone, during the flooding. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The turn of the year is a good time for reflection. Thinking anew can mean thinking afresh. In this spirit, let's start the new year with a challenge to the conventional political wisdom.

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Most pundits believe Irish voters are stability-oriented, and that they will be inclined to vote for stability in the soon-to-be-called General Election. It is widely held among commentators that once the campaign proper begins, the average busy voter - who normally gives only limited consideration to the performance of politicians between elections - will weigh up the options and be more inclined to plump for the better-known devil.

This logic suggests that as the posters go up and the political class takes to the hustings, the mainstream parties - Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour - will collectively stage something of a comeback from the lowest levels of support they have garnered since the 1950s. Some have even spoken of an overall majority for Fine Gael.

By contrast, Sinn Féin, the smaller parties and Independents will see the very high levels of support that they have enjoyed in opinion polls in recent years dwindle.

That is the conventional wisdom, and it may very well be correct. But there is good reason to question it. Tom Wright, an analyst at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC, has pointed out that in the countries most similar to Ireland in recent times - Spain, Portugal and Greece - non-mainstream parties actually gained support during their most recent election campaigns. The old ploy of playing to voters' risk aversion didn't work for the establishment in those countries when electorates were most focused on politics.

If Ireland follows the patterns of the other bailed-out countries in the forthcoming General Election, rather than the pattern the pundits expect, the three main parties would lose support rather than gain it during the campaign.

Why did so many Greek, Spanish and (to a lesser extent) Portuguese voters take a chance on parties untested in power?

The answer is likely to lie in a general discontent with politics across the western world. Disillusionment and anger has become particularly acute since the start of the developed world's 'Great Recession' in 2008, resulting in very few incumbent governments winning re-election and a rise in support for the populist extremes - from Alexis Tspiras to Donald Trump.

Observers of political trends hotly debate the exact reasons for the level of disillusionment with the parties that have governed the democratic world for decades, but few doubt that something is afoot.

Where there is little disagreement is that economic awfulness is an important factor, if not the central factor. In most cases it is the countries that have suffered the deepest recessions that have experienced the greatest political change, as establishment parties find it harder to claim that they are the best and safest managers of economies.

Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal all had frighteningly deep recessions. All four were bailed out by international creditors. The ignominy of becoming a mendicant nation has likely further eroded confidence in mainstream political parties.

The upshot of all this was that when voters in the three southern European countries began to focus on who to vote for in their respective campaigns over the course of last year, the anticipated return to the mainstream and long-established parties didn't happen. The more voters paid attention to politics, the more they were prepared to go for the Syrizas and Podemoses.

That pattern could be replicated in Ireland. There is no shortage of evidence from opinion polling that Irish voters have become more disillusioned with politics.

Some of that evidence points to greater disillusionment in Ireland than most other democracies. A poll conducted just over a year ago by Edelman, a public relations firm, found Irish respondents to be the most distrustful of government among 27 countries surveyed across the world. Just one in five Irish respondents in the poll said they trusted government.

And the survey had much else to suggest that post-crash Ireland has become a quite cynical place. For instance, fewer than one in three people trust business, the media and non-governmental agencies - close to the bottom of the international trust league table.

Another survey will bolster the hopes of those running as Independents.

The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems shows antipathy to political parties is particularly strong in Ireland.

It found that 49pc of people expressed hostility to parties in general, a level almost twice that of the second-placed country, Belgium (at 26pc).

If one adds the fact that consumer confidence has soared back to pre-crisis levels, but support for the Coalition has risen by only a small amount, it is clear that people are prepared to give to the Government very little credit for what they themselves acknowledge are much better economic times.

Almost everyone agrees that the crash led to major change in Irish politics.

But the consensus is that campaigning will calm voters down and cool their anger, if only because they will see that the choice on offer - Sinn Féin, the hard left and Independents - might bring more change than they really want.

In support of this view, some analysts point to the British general election last year in which support for UKIP declined (slightly) over the course of the campaign.

But Britain's recession was a mere blip compared with Ireland's. The Mediterranean countries look like much better comparators.

If the forthcoming election campaign mirrors the campaigns in southern Europe last year, the Dáil will be a very diverse place after the next election. If that is the case, forming a coalition will be even harder than most observers believe it will be. It could be that no combination can be cobbled together. In that case the country will be traipsing back to the polls within a few short months.

Irish Independent

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