The best local election turnout in nearly 20 years

Mon, Jun 14, 2004, 01:00

Analysis/Local elections: Fianna Fáil's defeat went well beyond the normal mid-term setback, writes analyst Seán Donnelly.

Local elections are known as second-order elections. The key to understanding second-order elections is to realise that there is less at stake, i.e., such elections do not determine the distribution of power at the crucial national decision-making level.

To say that there is less at stake is not to say there is nothing at stake. Also, the issue of mid-term Government unpopularity must be distinguished from any longer-term trends.

Since 1960 Fianna Fáil has averaged 40 per cent of the local elections vote, with Fine Gael averaging 30.3 per cent and Labour 11.25 per cent. These figures are just a point or two below their general election averages.

The Fianna Fáil vote has been dropping steadily since 1985 - when the party achieved 45.49 per cent of the first-preference vote in local elections - but this fall was stalled in the 2002 general election when it got 41.48 per cent. This weekend's results see it drop below 40 per cent once more.

The omens were not good for Fianna Fáil, with a mid-term rebuff for the Government likely. The Fianna Fáil vote looks like dropping to a historical low level of 32 per cent or a seven-point drop on 1999, with many seat losses.

The Fianna Fáil vote was down in most council areas, with Carlow County Council one of the few to remain at its 1999 level. It fared particularly badly othe city councils, with drops of 13 points in Dublin, 12 in Limerick, 10 in Galway and seven in Cork. Fianna Fáil lost half its seats in Dublin city. Sligo County Council went against the trend; Fianna Fáil managed to gain a seat.

Fianna Fáil took a hammering well beyond the normal mid-term setback. This should send out danger signals to the Government parties: they are unlikely to form a record three in a row coalition government, unless there is a major change in fortune in the next three years.

Following a disastrous performance in 2002, Fine Gael had a lot at stake going into these elections as the party could not afford another poor performance. It rose to the challenge and under new leader Enda Kenny banished some of the 2002 demons.

The party more than held its own in most council areas and increased support in places like Cavan by seven points and gained two seats. In Waterford county its vote was up six points and it gained three seats, and it picked up an extra seat in Westmeath. Despite a two-point drop in Waterford city Fine Gael managed a seat gain.

This was Labour's first election under the leadership of Pat Rabbitte and the party will be reasonably satisfied with the outcome. It improved considerably on the 83 seats won in 1999. Labour more than held its own in most areas despite the surge in support for Sinn Féin, and it had gains in Limerick city, Sligo, Westmeath and Waterford city and county. Combined with Fianna Fáil's collapse, seat gains make Labour the largest party on Dublin City Council.

Sinn Féin is the big story in 2004, more than doubling the party's votes and seats compared to 1999. Dublin was a particularly happy hunting ground for Sinn Féin, with its vote up 10 points and it topped the poll in most of the areas north of the Liffey. Waterford was another good area for the party, as it took two seats in the city and one in the county.

Sinn Féin followed up its success in last year's Northern Assembly elections with an even better performance south of the Border, and the rise in the party's graph looks like continuing.

In the 1999 local elections the Progressive Democrats recovered from their 1997 general election mauling, and retained their position as the fourth largest party in the State with 25 seats. But this most recent visit to the polling stations resulted in disappointment for the party as it remained virtually static. The much-heralded gains in "Parlon country" failed to materialise.

Despite winning seats at general and in particular European elections, the Green Party found the local election scene not so rewarding. It won 13 seats in 1991 but that was reduced to eight in 1999. It had a good general election in 2002, with four seat gains to add to the two won in 1997.

The general view going into these elections was that the trend in reduced voter turnout would continue but surprise, surprise, the turnout went up by a remarkable 10 points from 50 per cent in 1999 to 60 per cent.

So why did 382,000 more people cast their vote last Friday? One of the reasons could be the increased vote for Sinn Féin. The citizenship referendum may have brought out some who would not have otherwise have voted but that is unlikely to be significant.

The probability of close races in all four Euro constituencies may have caught the imagination, and good weather and the 7 a.m. start may also have helped. Whatever the reasons, this increase in turnout is to be welcomed - it is the best local election turnout in nearly 20 years.