Three high-stakes elections
They may seem like insignificant midterms, but the trio of ballots next Friday could have far-reaching consequences
Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly/Thinkstock
There’s a scene towards the end of All the President’s Men, the classic Watergate scandal investigation yarn, when the Washington Post is about to publish its revelations. Ben Bradlee, the editor, turns to his reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and, in a voice laced with irony, says: “Nothing’s riding on this except, em, the first amendment to the constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.”
Next Friday Ireland goes to the polls to vote in three sets of contests: European elections, local elections and, in two constituencies, Dáil byelections. They may seem insignificant – they’re midterm elections, second-tier in nature – but they’re not.
Eleven people will be elected to the European Parliament, and 949 will be elected to county and city councils. One of the byelections, in Dublin West, is to replace the Independent TD Patrick Nulty, who stood down after sending inappropriate social-media messages. The other, in Longford-Westmeath, is to fill a seat left empty by the death of the Fine Gael deputy Nicky McFadden.
On the face of it not much is riding on them. The Government will remain in power. The Opposition will have no extra sway in the Dáil. Power will remain concentrated in the centre, and Brussels will absorb the MEPs as a glass of water does a homeopathic remedy.
A midterm ballot allows voters to register their disillusion with unpopular government policies or with a party that has failed to live up to its promises. Such events have no bearing on primary elections. Fianna Fáil’s poor local-election results in 2004, for example, had no effect on its performance in the 2007 general election.
Except . . . Second-tier elections have sometimes led to leadership heaves and hastened governments’ downfall, reshaping the destiny of the country. Byelections have had the greatest impact in these cases. Poor results for Fianna Fáil in the 1979 European elections created internal doubts about then taoiseach Jack Lynch, but his fate was sealed later that year when Fianna Fáil lost two byelections on the same day, in Cork. In 1994, four opposition wins in byelections contributed to the break-up of the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition. The Donegal South West byelection of October 2010 was another watershed, a harbinger of Sinn Féin’s rise and Fianna Fáil’s decline. That too drove an early election.
And at the Meath East byelection last year, Labour had to recognise from its trouncing in the poll that it was unlikely to emerge from office unscathed.
Local elections can be influential, too. The Greens were crushed in 2009 when they failed to win a European seat and lost all but three of their 18 council seats. Those elections also gave them fair warning of the annihilation that was to come in the 2011 general election.
So the three sets of ballots next Friday have potential repercussions for all political parties and Independents.
The number of EU constituencies has been reduced to three: Dublin, with three seats, and two hybrid constituencies, each with four seats: South, and Midlands North West.
True to the spirit of midterm elections, the main issues are predominantly Government ones: property taxes, water charges and social housing. In rural areas the common agriculture and fisheries policies have traction. The only other discernible European theme is growing antipathy to Brussels.
European elections tend to be beauty contests with superficial coverage and debate. There is a strong emphasis on opinion polls, although the relatively low numbers of people they poll make them inaccurate. They sometimes even become self-fulfilling prophecies.
In the locals elections, the abolition of town councils means the number of seats on county and city councils has risen, from 883. This will allow parties to cushion losses and inflate gains.
The party wins five seats in the European elections, retains its 32 per cent share of the vote in the local elections, and wins both byelections.
It wins two or three European seats, suffers a drop in council seats from the 342 it won in 2009, and loses both byelections.
Fine Gael should return four MEPs and could win more than 300 council seats – a loss of seats and share but very much contained. In the byelections, Gabrielle McFadden should win Longford-Westmeath, and Eamonn Coghlan has a real chance in Dublin West.
What’s at stake
For an incumbent party, not very much. Controversies involving Alan Shatter and Phil Hogan have done some damage, as have the charges on property and water. But Fine Gael seems insulated from the worst of voter anger. There is no threat to Enda Kenny or to the party’s other senior officers.
Even if it performs only modestly in the local elections, the party can dress up the other two as successes (as it did in 2004, when it won five European seats). Success in both byelections will give Fine Gael some gloating rights.
Fianna Fáil did badly in 2009 – but not nearly as badly as it did in 2011. So if it gets the same 25 per cent of the vote in the local elections that it did in 2009, it will mean an increase in its 218 local-government seats.
It would like to see a big increase of seats in Dublin, where it currently has no TDs. The party will be hoping to return three MEPs, including Mary Fitzpatrick, and win the Dublin West byelection.
Losing its share of votes and seats compared with 2009 and failing to make significant headway in Dublin would be considered a poor performance. Likewise Fitzpatrick finishing fifth or sixth in Dublin or the party failing to win a seat in Midlands North West. If the party allows Sinn Féin to get above it in the pecking order in both byelections, it will be viewed very dimly.
The party should retain two of its European seats, but Dublin looks tricky, and Luke “Ming” Flanagan might spring a surprise in Midlands North West. The party will make some gains in the local elections in Dublin, but will it get up to double figures on Dublin City Council? Probably not.
With David Hall and Eamonn Coghlan now in the field in the Dublin West byelection, David McGuinness might no longer be the main challenger to the socialist Ruth Coppinger. The party should finish second in the other byelection.
What’s at stake
There has been a lot of emphasis on Labour, but Fianna Fáil could have an election that confirms Éamon Ó Cuiv’s assessment of a party becalmed. This is the party’s first big electoral test since the 2011 meltdown – and it needs to show something for it. That is particularly true in Dublin, where it needs to almost double its local representation and bring in prospective Dáil candidates as councillors.
Getting an MEP in Dublin would be a great result for Fianna Fáil, but it’s a crowded field, and, with Sinn Féin the repository for protest votes, this looks like a long shot.
If Fianna Fáil fails to make a mark in the byelections, comes in below its 218-seat total in councils, and returns only two MEPs, uncomfortable questions will be asked about the party’s recovery strategy and the team behind it. Losing out in Midlands North West would be a serious body blow, and doubts would be raised about Micheál Martin’s leadership. He will survive, though; the party has no other prospective leader at present.
All scenarios for Sinn Féin look good. The party had a terrible election in 2009. Mary Lou McDonald lost her European Parliament seat. The party won only 54 council seats – the same number as it had filled in 2004 – and lost half a percentage point in support.
It’s quite likely, given that its support will be well into double figures, that the party will get upwards of 150 local-authority seats this time around and begin to breathe down Fianna Fáil’s neck.
Its strategy of running unknowns in the European elections also looks like paying off. Lynn Boylan is no more than a face on the poster to most Dubliners; if she is elected, which looks plausible, it will be thanks to a number of voters who know next to nothing about her.
Sinn Féin is obsessed with Fianna Fáil, seeing it as the equivalent in the Republic of the SDLP in the North. The icing on the cake for it would be to outpoll Fianna Fáil in one of the byelections.
It’s relative. The party is on the rise, but maybe not as much as people think. Opinion polls can overstate support for Sinn Féin, and the party might not be as transfer-friendly as its supporters think. The recent arrest of Gerry Adams may deter some soft support. There’s a small chance that the party’s candidate in Midlands North West, Matt Carthy, could be under threat from Luke “Ming” Flanagan.
The party’s performance is likely to be closer to a favourable outcome – and, if it is positive, Sinn Féin will have crossed a political threshold.
What’s at stake
Politics is cyclical. Five years ago Sinn Féin was down; now the party looks as if it can do no wrong. It has a long-term strategy – one being implemented with military discipline and planning – to become a dominant player. This election is another important stepping stone.
A good result for Labour in the local elections would be to sustain only minor losses in Dublin and other cities and large towns. In the European ballot a good result would be to retain at least one of the three seats it won in 2009. The party has no chance in the byelections but will hope for a respectable vote.
If the outcome involved big losses of seats on the four Dublin councils, or if its total number of councillors halved, from more than 100 to 50, the party would be in trouble. The scenario of returning no MEPs is possible, as is finishing a distant also-ran in both of the byelections.
Unfortunately for Labour, the likelihood is not too far removed from the more negative scenario. The increase of 66 seats in councils around the country may help temper losses, but the party will struggle to make any impact in the byelections.
It’s also going to be a hard slog in the European elections, but there is a possibility of one seat. And, given the dire predictions the commentariat and opposition have been making, if the party pulled that off, it could be portrayed as a major victory.
What’s at stake
If the result is dismal there will be immediate pressure on Eamon Gilmore’s leadership, with the possibility of a challenge from a rival such as Joan Burton. On a wider level, as happened with the Greens in 2009, there will be calls for a new programme for government and a substantial Cabinet reshuffle. There could even be moves from the backbenches for the party to leave the Government.
Independents and smaller parties
Independents always do well when the political scene is volatile, as it currently is. Independents won 139 seats in the local elections in 2009. Winning 200 or more seats would send out a powerful message. If smaller socialist groupings, such as the Anti Austerity Alliance, win a few dozen seats it may mean significant change.
There’s an outside chance of Independents and smaller parties winning three seats in the European elections – two in Midlands North West and one in Dublin – with Nessa Childers, Eamon Ryan and Paul Murphy, respectively. We could also see an Independent or Socialist Party TD in Dublin West.
A static performance at the locals, and just one Independent (presumably Marian Harkin) going to Brussels, would be considered disappointing, as would the failure of Ruth Coppinger or David Hall to break through in the Dublin West byelection.
It seems likely that Independents and small parties will do well in the locals. There’s also a good chance of at least two Independent MEPs winning seats and a victory for Coppinger in Dublin West.
What’s at stake
Independents are too disparate to have significant impact, so it’s plausible that smaller socialist parties will start looking to consolidate. The Green Party’s future hinges on some success, either through Eamon Ryan or wins in the councils.