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Politics of moderation and stability could be final casualty of global financial crisis

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Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza party, left, and Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain's Podemos party, wave to supporters during a Syriza party pre-election rally at Omonoia square, in Athens, Greece, on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. The election battle between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and opposition leader Tsipras moved into its final stretch, with Tsipras's anti-bailout Syriza party maintaining its lead before voting day on Jan. 25. Photographer: Yorgos Karahalis /Bloomberg  Alexis Tsipras; Pablo Iglesias

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza party, left, and Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain's Podemos party, wave to supporters during a Syriza party pre-election rally at Omonoia square, in Athens, Greece, on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. The election battle between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and opposition leader Tsipras moved into its final stretch, with Tsipras's anti-bailout Syriza party maintaining its lead before voting day on Jan. 25. Photographer: Yorgos Karahalis /Bloomberg Alexis Tsipras; Pablo Iglesias

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza party, left, and Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain's Podemos party, wave to supporters during a Syriza party pre-election rally at Omonoia square, in Athens, Greece, on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. The election battle between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and opposition leader Tsipras moved into its final stretch, with Tsipras's anti-bailout Syriza party maintaining its lead before voting day on Jan. 25. Photographer: Yorgos Karahalis /Bloomberg Alexis Tsipras; Pablo Iglesias

These are strange times in politics across the world. In the UK, the Labour party is poised to go back to the 1940s and elect a hard-left leader with some pretty outlandish views, particularly when it comes to foreign affairs.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, the ever obnoxious arch right-winger Donald Trump continues to dominate the Republican primary race.

And, in European countries with a reputation for tolerance and moderation, the hard right is starting to gain ground.

Thankfully, that latter trend hasn’t materialised in Ireland. But we do have half the electorate, based on consistent opinion polls, willing to vote for non-establishment parties.

Fair enough, you might say. Sure wasn’t it the establishment parties, particularly Fianna Fáil, that got us into the mess in the first place?

And that’s true. To a point – enough has emerged at the banking inquiry to date to caution against drawing simplistic conclusions about what went wrong.

The reality is, even if they won’t get any thanks for it, it has also been the establishment parties that have got the country back out of the mess, to the point where Ireland is now the fastest growing economy in Europe.

There’s almost a social stigma about pointing it out, but the policies of “austerity” – a pejorative term that has become mainstream even in the media that prides itself on its supposed analytical rigour – has worked in turning the country around.

In broad terms, Fine Gael and Labour have done the right things since being elected. This hubristic Government would never admit it but so, before them, did Fianna Fáil and the Greens once the crisis hit in 2008.

Back then, the siren calls from the left and right (including ironically FG and Labour in opposition) were for a variety of “easy” solutions: let banks go to the wall; burn bondholders; renege on foreign debt; tell the ECB to get stuffed; bang the table at EU level; and ignore the need to reduce a Budget deficit that at one point had risen to €20bn.

The last two governments resisted such calls – in some of the cases because they were told to do so. Nobody could suggest the past seven years have been easy – there has been considerable pain – but, by and large, the tough (unavoidable) medicine has worked.

Contrast that with Greece where the patient refused the medicine, before ultimately opting for the miracle cure promised by the populist Syriza party. The result has been catastrophic.

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Many commentators, including this one, believed events in Greece would have a huge impact on the next general election here. If Syriza was successful, it would give a massive shot in the arm to anti-establishment parties here. If it wasn’t, then those parties advocating similar policies here would be damaged.

But, so far at least, it hasn’t worked out like that. Syriza in government has been like a car crash. Faced with the prospect of Greece going to the wall, it has been forced into a humiliating U-turn.

But it’s had no discernible impact on opinion polls here. Parties and independent politicians that pushed the Syriza line here, and berated the Government’s supine approach, haven’t suffered any drop in support.

The popularity of populism, if that makes sense, is undiminished. That suggests the public isn’t going to move greatly between now and the general election. There had been a view in political and media circles that once voters were faced with real choices about the future of the country in an election campaign, they would move back towards the establishment parties rather than take a risk with the unknown. But if that didn’t happen after the Greek tragedy, it’s hard to imagine it will come in the election.

Based on opinion polls this year, there is a real danger that the country is sleep-walking towards political paralysis where no combination of parties – other perhaps than an unlikely FG-FF coalition – can form a government. And where the extent of political promises is back to 2007 levels.

That it is hugely worrying. People may not be grateful to the Government for the recovery, but there also seems to be an assumption that the crisis has passed. All thing being equal, it has.

However, what if things aren’t equal? A period of prolonged political paralysis here, combined with any fresh economic difficulties internationally, has the capacity to unravel all the gains that have been hard won in the past seven years.

Richard Nixon used to joke that he had to move sharply to the right to secure his party’s presidential nomination at convention and then spend the rest of the actual presidential election campaign getting back to the centre. Because being in the centre is what won general elections.

Is that still the case? Or are the politics of moderation and stability – that have, on the whole, served the western world well over the past 70 years – the final casualty of the great global financial crisis of 2008? To be replaced by demagoguery, populism and, potentially in some cases, extremism.

If the opinion polls are right – and history tells us they usually are – then the next general election here will produce the most radical transformation of politics in 90 years. But before we vote to usurp the old order, we should be sure we’re replacing it with something better.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on Newstalk at 10am


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