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Philip Stephens: Ireland confirms death of two party politics in Europe

The outcome of the general election is following a well-trodden route

A ballot paper is seen as Sinn Fein’s Paul Donnelly topped the poll in Dublin West on February 9, 2020 . (Photo by Donall Farmer/Getty Images)

Politics has been turned inside out. Europe is waving goodbye to the two-party politics that shaped its democracies. Voter preferences have fragmented, so coalitions that were once contained within opposing parties of the centre-right and centre-left must somehow be reassembled outside of them. Bargains hammered out in back rooms must now be negotiated between parties operating in the full public glare. Political leaders are struggling to adjust.

Europe, of course, has always had more than its share of coalition governments. The difference is that, with the occasional exception, they acted as the rotating door for a couple of dominant parties. The outcome of the general election in Ireland has offered confirmation, if any were needed, of the new trend.

For 90 years the politics of the republic have been dominated by the two parties that emerged from the Irish civil war, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. One or other, and most often Fianna Fáil, has been the lead partner in every government since the 1920s. This equilibrium has now been upended by Sinn Féin’s victory in the latest poll.

Ireland is following a well-trodden route. In France, the formerly dominant Socialist and centre-right Republican (and its predecessors) parties held a freehold on the presidency and national assembly. In 2017, however, Emmanuel Macron won the Elysée from a standing start, and his La République en Marche movement, formed in 2016, dominates the assembly. The odds are that in 2022, as in 2017, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, will be his main challenger.


In Germany, support for the centre-left Social Democratic party has almost halved to 20 per cent since the turn of the century. The centre-right Christian Democrats have fared better, but have still seen their vote share fall to a little over 30 per cent. Until the late 1990s it never dipped below 40 per cent. Fear that the Christian Democrats could sink even lower helped explain the withdrawal this week of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as chancellor Angela Merkel’s would-be successor.

In Spain, the Socialists and the centre-right Popular party secured 80 per cent of the vote in 2000. The emergence of Podemos and more recently Vox saw that figure fall to 49 per cent last year. The pattern is not universal. Some countries have long operated with multi-party systems. Italy is sui generis. In Britain, a winner-takes-all electoral system has seen fragmentation along national rather than ideological lines. The Conservatives and Labour, the two main UK-wide parties, between them hold only seven of the 59 seats in Scotland.

Centre-left parties have suffered most from the fragmentation, losing votes both to nationalists on the right and to historically leftish parties such as the Greens. The common thread here is the fracturing of what was once a homogenous working class vote. Globalisation and technological advance have separated “insiders” still in secure and often unionised employment from “outsiders” stranded on the margins by change. The latter are the “left-behinds” falling in behind populists.

The old politics arranged around two parties was inherently stable. Defeat for the centre-right meant victory for the centre-left, and vice versa. Transitions were typically seamless. The unavoidable tensions between different factions and interest groups within each coalition were constrained by the need for party discipline. Voters were denied sight of any dirty deals being done.

The new, fragmented politics looks inherently unstable. Building multi-party coalitions requires politicians to compromise, to admit they are throwing overboard policies that were part of their electoral platform. Hence predictions that it will be months before Ireland finds a governing coalition - and suggestions that the answer may be a second election. Better, some say, instability than compromise.

There is, though, another way of looking at this new, fragmented landscape. The missing ingredient that does most to explain the stresses and strains in European politics is trust. Fewer voters are willing to hold on to their tribal allegiances in a world where political promises have been badly devalued. They are more attracted to new, smaller parties often representing, like the Greens, one or two big issues.

From this angle, the transparency required by multi-party coalition-building presents an opportunity to restore trust. “This is what we proposed in our manifesto,” the message to electorates runs, “and these are the changes we are ready to make in order to accommodate the platforms of others.”

This will not come easy to politicians used to operating out of sight. But my guess is that they would be surprised by the reaction. Voters quite like candour and are perfectly capable of rewarding it. In any event, the politicians do not have much of a choice when the alternatives are chronic instability and ever more frequent elections.

Fragmentation can be a source of stability. New Zealand consciously abandoned two-party politics in the early 1990s in favour of an electoral system designed to create space for small parties. The change was accompanied by dire predictions from the old guard that the country would become ungovernable. On the contrary. New Zealand has had four prime ministers, including the present incumbent, since 2000 - one fewer than, say, two-party Britain.

Philip Stephens is a columnist with the Financial Times

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