News John Downing

Thursday 28 August 2014

Much at stake for parties as they prepare to face apathetic voters

Published 17/03/2014 | 02:30

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny, left, and  President Barack Obama, hold up a bowl of shamrocks during a St. Patricks Day reception. But Fine Gael could face a backlash in the coming European elections. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, left, and President Barack Obama, hold up a bowl of shamrocks during a St. Patricks Day reception. But Fine Gael could face a backlash in the coming European elections. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

BRACE yourselves – we are about to go into election mode. Variously, as this St Patrick's week drags on, our wandering ministers will return, the political ceasefire will end and electioneering will start to build.

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Nine weeks from this coming Friday, people will be invited to the polls to elect their 11 Euro MEPs and 949 city and county councillors. There are big things at stake for all of the parties.

Fine Gael is hoping for damage limitation. Labour will be looking for signs that allow them to say they are not on the verge of wipeout. Fianna Fail will be trying to argue that they really are on the way back. Sinn Fein will be seeking evidence that all that they promise finally becomes something tangible.

The irony of it all is that average voters, whose other concerns in life mean they take their politics sparingly and at some distance, will not be particularly fixated with these contests.

A turnout of over 50pc on Friday, May 23, might be deemed reasonable enough.

For most people, these are 'secondary elections'. It is true that the calibre of local councillors we choose can impact on the quality of the places in which we live. It is further true that the European Parliament has real powers in the making of EU decisions that affect all of us.

But for the majority of people, who are not obsessive about their politics, the realpolitik is that the fate of the parties may well be decided by people with at best a glancing knowledge of what is at stake.

It is called democracy and we'll all have to get on with it.

Another feature of this local and Euro election day is that the campaigns are interlinked. The bigger European one conditions the mood for the more individual local contests.

Fine Gael knows that it is in for a bit of a kicking in these contests. It will be hard for it to hold its four European Parliament seats. The contest between the sitting duo of Jim Higgins and Mairead McGuinness will be watched with interest as they are now competitors in the monster four-seater of Midland North West, which comprises all of Connacht, the three Ulster counties of the Republic, and seven counties in north and mid Leinster.

Most surveys put Fine Gael support in the high 20s; a 'Sunday Independent' poll earlier this month had it on 28pc. That's down markedly on the 36pc it got in the February 2011 general election, which gave it a record 76 TDs.

But at Leinster House, most FG TDs know that showing may be as good as could be expected given the past three years of dishing out national misery.

FG's 'damage limitation' and 'need for better communication' messages for the last week of May are not hard to script.

Labour's story is much harder. They will remember the June 2009 locals when the other junior coalition partner, the Green Party, was given an advance serving of the doom that befell it in February 2011.

If Labour is given a complete kicking there will be questions about Eamon Gilmore's leadership and further recrimination and strife.

These upcoming contests are about the party's survival. Opinion polls put it below 10pc – getting on for half what it got in its record 2011 general election performance, which saw it return 37 TDs.

But we might also be saying something similar about Fianna Fail and Micheal Martin.

After a flurry of revivalism about a year ago, they are seriously becalmed and stuck in the early 20s in the opinion polls.

That 'Sunday Independent' poll had them on 21pc – just four points better than the 17pc drubbing they got in the last general election, which left them 20 TDs, a political void in Dublin and no women in the Dail.

Sinn Fein is one of the few with a truly good story to tell. Its poll showings are getting on for double the general election take of 10pc. The party has impressive, but little known, European Parliament candidates in each of the three constituencies, and there are signs more and more people may give them a vote next May.

Their challenge will be to manage their success. They need to deliver seats and bank tangible results from all this promise.

All signs are that it will be a very good election for those 'Independents and others'. Candidates with local credibility are always a good thing in council elections and, with 22pc opinion poll showings, they can look forward to a very good day out on May 23.

One intriguing question will be the fate of the Green Party – reduced to three councillors nationwide in 2009 and banished from the Dail and Seanad in 2011.

Party leader Eamon Ryan has a fighting chance of a Euro seat in Dublin and again its very future depends on this election.

In summary, it is all to play for on May 23. Party activists will be pushing hard – but their biggest enemy will be public apathy.

Irish Independent

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