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Transfers will decide who wins presidential election

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By tomorrow morning, the country is going to be blanketed with posters for the candidates as the official starting gun is fired.

There will be a record number of candidates. And the only other certainty is that the winner of the election will be decided by transfers.

That is not normal for our presidential elections -- because the result was only decided by transfers in one out of 12 previous elections. That was in 1990, when the late Brian Lenihan Senior was overtaken in the second count by Mary Robinson, who got the majority of transfers from Fine Gael's eliminated candidate Austin Currie.

But the general historical pattern up to then was for a Fianna Fail presidential candidate to run -- and beat -- a Fine Gael candidate. The competitive element was limited even more by the fact that six out of the 12 previous presidential elections were uncontested.

Those who got in by default included our first president Douglas Hyde, and Fianna Fail's Paddy Hillery, who served two seven-year terms without ever being opposed.

The likelihood of having seven candidates this time out -- including Dana and David Norris -- means that it will be impossible for anyone to secure a winning tally in the first count. That means that returning officers and their staff at election count centres had better start preparing for a long night.

And in the forthcoming TV debates, candidates will be almost as keen to attract transfers as they are to attract first preferences. Expect many election canvassers to be asking you for the 'Number 2' vote even if you are determined not to vote for their candidate.

Labour is already satisfied with opinion polls which show that Michael D Higgins is the most "transfer friendly" of all the current candidates. If Senator David Norris were to be eliminated, he would be the obvious candidate for the majority of his transfers.

Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell will need to boost his support to ensure that he does not miss out in this transfer battle. His director of elections Charlie Flanagan said yesterday that he would attract transfers from all sectors "with the exception of Sinn Fein".

But it is hard to see many Norris voters leaning towards Mr Mitchell, given his socially conservative background. But he may have a better chance getting transfers from Dana Rosemary Scallon -- who shares his strong anti-abortion stance.

Mr Flanagan also boldly predicted that Mr Mitchell would be one of the last two candidates standing -- and therefore would be able to benefit from transfers. But he will have to up his campaign to ensure this becomes a reality.

Mr Mitchell will be hoping to benefit from the current popularity of Taoiseach Enda Kenny -- who will be with him when he hands in his nomination papers today. But he knows there is no way that the Government can resort to the sort of stunts that influenced the results of presidential elections in the past.

In the 1966 presidential election, Fianna Fail's Eamon de Valera was aged 84 and nearly blind. His campaign manager was Agriculture Minister Charlie Haughey, who increased milk prices for farmers on the eve of the election. It helped de Valera to win the rural vote and he narrowly scraped a victory over Fine Gael's Tom O'Higgins.

There is still a widespread belief that Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness will be the most "transfer unfriendly" candidate in this election, given his IRA past and his party's traditionally poor record in this area.

Sinn Fein got just 6.95pc of transfers in the general election, compared to Fine Gael (29pc) and Labour (17.73pc). But Mr McGuiness will be hoping to portray himself as an anti-establishment candidate -- and therefore pick up transfers from voters who would not have considered supporting Sinn Fein before.

If Mr McGuinness himself is eliminated, some of his surplus vote may not transfer to any other candidate. Sinn Fein had the largest percentage of voters -- 26.54pc -- which did not transfer their vote to any party in the last general election.

Then there are Independent candidates like Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher -- and their transfers could go in several directions.

The battle for transfers should have a positive effect on the turnout in the presidential election. There was a 64pc turnout in 1990 when the country was transfixed by the emergence of Mary Robinson but it dropped to 47pc when President Mary McAleese defeated four other candidates in 1997.

Turnout can be influenced by factors such as the weather and the day of polling (October 27 is a Thursday) but the closeness of the race is crucial. The number of candidates in this election and the controversies surrounding them should ensure that turnout is closer this time to the 69.9pc figure in the general election.

Labour's director of elections Joe Costello said he expected there would be a good turnout based on the number of candidates competing. He noted that there would also be a Dublin West by-election and two referenda held on the same day.

Each candidate needs to get 12.5pc of the vote to ensure that they can claim some of their election expenses back from the State -- a figure capped at €200,000. Although it is possible for seven candidates to get an equal share of the vote, the likelihood is that at least two will fall below the 12.5pc voting threshold and lose out on their election expenses.

But expect to hear a lot more about transfers than election expenses over the next four weeks.

Irish Independent