Friday 13 December 2019

Julien Mercille: Grand coalition: an option that leaves FF and FG facing a crucial strategic dilemma

Micheál Martin (left) and Enda Kenny (right)
Micheál Martin (left) and Enda Kenny (right)

Julien Mercille

There has been much talk about the possibility that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will enter into a coalition government following the election. The issue can be summarised neatly as a dilemma - choosing between short-term hunger for power vs. longer-term strategic patience.

The former involves immediate electoral gains but also high risks to the historical political dominance of the two parties by strengthening the Left; on the other hand, the latter option means relinquishing immediate gains in order to preserve the parties' dominance in the long run.

The cleverest politicians, of which Leo Varadkar seems to be one, have recently signalled that this is how they understand the situation as well.

Indeed, in his comments in the Irish Independent this week, Mr Varadkar opposed a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition.

He mentioned the lack of trust between the two parties and sought to highlight their differences on economic policy. But at the bottom of his piece he outlines succinctly the real strategic reason for rejecting a coalition: it would facilitate the rise of Sinn Féin.

Varadkar writes: "A so-called grand coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would be a forced marriage with Sinn Féin holding the shotgun. It suits Sinn Féin because it means it can pretend to be a credible alternative without having to develop realistic policies. It also lets it become the main opposition, which is where it really wants to be."

While Varadkar and others, such as Minister Simon Coveney, are uneasy about an alliance, recent opinion polls suggest that the two parties have not gathered enough electoral support to strive on their own. Hence the necessity, according to a number of their supporters in the media, to form a coalition, that some have labelled "Fianna Gael".

However, the danger - for the two parties - is that this will boost the Left significantly.

The smaller parties and Independents could coalesce around Sinn Féin and form a relatively unified Left bloc that could grow and overtake the Right by the time of the next election.

And, importantly, with a coalition making Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael look more the same than ever before, angry voters are likely to turn to the Left as the only real alternative.

Indeed, we may be on the verge of a truly historical election that will usher into being a political sphere that is split from Left to Right instead of along a Civil War divide.

The traditional pendulum swing between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governance may thus become a thing of the past.

On the other hand, the patient option would involve rejecting a coalition and continuing to emphasise the allegedly irreconcilable differences between the two parties.

This, however, promises to be increasingly difficult, as a number of analysts have recently conceded that the two parties are hard to distinguish on the majority of their policies.

With the patient option, the price that must be paid is the postponement of immediate access to power for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, or both. It may also result in much popular pressure to form a coalition for stability. In the event of a second election in a few months' time, it would also give more breathing room to the Left to organise and grow, supported by a wave of pressure directed towards the two main parties to stabilise the political process.

Personally, I have always considered political elites to be largely rational in their decisions, pursuing their own interests in a logical fashion.

For this reason, I find it hard to believe that the two main parties would consider uniting. It would be too dangerous to their long-term interests, which are much more significant than whatever is at play in any single election. Long-term strategic plans are never far from the mind of the cleverest and most successful politicians, as seen above. But it is also true that the political class is understandably hungry for power. Members of this class often act like business people, focusing on the short-term and discounting the future, which remains, after all, unpredictable. And in this sense we may see the coalition emerge, even though this would seem to be irrational in the longer-term.

Yet, this being said, there are uncertain and unknown factors making strategic calculations difficult. Ultimately, much depends on the level of popular support gathered by the parties. In the event of a hung parliament, the next few months may well see Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael outcompete the other, in which case we would go back to the traditional Civil War split. Alternatively, an unstable situation may fuel the flames of discontent and energise Sinn Féin, Left-wing parties and Independents.

For those who believe in miracles, the Left may even unite to a greater extent and act in a more co-ordinated fashion. In this case, we may be forced to contemplate a political sphere divided along a Left-Right axis and to ponder whether Fianna Fáil would be tempted to enter a Sinn Féin-led coalition.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. Twitter: @JulienMercille

Irish Independent

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