Difficult for parties and leaders to meet great expectations at the polls

Opinion: Turnout may be a critical factor in the result


Next Friday’s local and European elections are potentially dangerous for all of the political parties and their leaders. For some the failure to meet high expectations could begin to undermine confidence, while for others a truly bad result could have devastating consequences.

Midterm elections are always difficult for government parties but the past three years of spending cuts and tax increases have presented the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition with a huge challenge. Both Government parties can argue with justice that the measures they took were necessary to save the country from economic ruin. The question is whether the voters will factor the national interest into their decision on polling day or simply take out their frustration at the ensuing hardship on Fine Gael and Labour.

In the run-up to the election the consensus among political observers was that the Fine Gael vote would hold up reasonably well but Labour was in for a pounding.

The theory, supported by opinion poll evidence, was that most Fine Gael voters understood the need for the economic discipline of the past few years but that Labour voters were deeply disillusioned, particularly in the light of the promises made during the last election campaign.

Unexpected consequences
That has created different expectations for the performance of the two Government parties and those expectations could have unexpected consequences. If Fine Gael fails to live up to expectations, and particularly if it drops below 25 per cent, Enda Kenny could be put into a seriously uncomfortable position for the first time since he became Taoiseach and the party’s confidence could be badly dented.

For Eamon Gilmore the expectations are already so low that one of his Euro candidates, Phil Prendergast, called on him to step down as leader in the course of the campaign. If Labour manages to confound the prophets of doom by retaining more than 100 county council seats and holding on to one in the European Parliament the Tánaiste’s position would be secured. The party could even start to feel some hope that the next general election might not be the disaster so many have been predicting for so long.

On the Opposition side expectations could also prove dangerous. It is widely expected that Sinn Féin will sweep all before it on Friday with the best result in the party’s history. Many commentators have been forecasting three European seats and well over a 100 council seats.

On the basis of opinion poll results showing the party at about 20 per cent over the past two years, Sinn Féin should meet those objectives and easily pass out the Labour Party in terms of votes and council seats. In the past Sinn Féin has not translated its best poll results into votes and one of the fascinating aspects of Friday’s result will be whether that pattern repeats itself.

Failure to achieve the party’s more ambitious targets would not only be disappointing, it could lead to criticism of Gerry Adams’s leadership. He has sought to dampen expectations but there is no disguising the party’s high hopes.

For Fianna Fáil the elections are a critical test as to whether it can recover from the disaster of 2011 when its share of the vote plummeted to 17 per cent. The party won 24.5 per cent in the last local elections and it will be doing very well if it can come even close to that. If Fianna Fáil doesn’t at least get to about 22 per cent and if it wins only one European seat, as some of the polls are indicating, questions will be asked about Micheál Martin’s leadership. The elections will also tell a lot about the potential of smaller parties and Independents to make further inroads into the political system.

Opinion polls show about 20 per cent of voters opting for individuals or groups outside the four major parties. The creation of bigger electoral areas this time around with six to 10 seats opens the door to all comers. The shift in council seats from the midlands and west to the more populated urban areas should also open the door for smaller parties and groups. The Greens were almost wiped from the political map in the last local elections and the general election completed the process. Unless Eamon Ryan can make it to Europe and the party makes a comeback at local level it is hard to see what future it can have.

Strong local organisation
Much will depend on the kind of campaign the various parties and individuals are managing to mount. Parties with strong local organisation and sitting councillors may manage to hold on to more seats than the polls are indicating, particularly if there is a low turnout. The vagaries of proportional representation (PR) often give bigger parties a substantial seat bonus where the vote is fractured among a large number of candidates. This could help Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil withstand the assault from Sinn Féin, smaller parties and Independents.

The big parties also have the capacity to split the vote between their candidates in the most effective way. Sometimes the tactic can backfire but the ability to exploit PR to its maximum effectiveness can often bring in more seats than the first-preference vote might indicate. There are also two byelections next Friday and the outcome will feed into the mood of success or failure for all of the parties.

Turnout could also be a factor in the result. It was almost 58 per cent in 2009 when voters delivered a kicking to the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition. A turnout of that order or bigger this time could be ominous for the current Coalition.

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