Political landscape changed utterly

THE POLITICAL landscape has been transformed in recent months as the recession deepens and the Government lurches from crisis…

THE POLITICAL landscape has been transformed in recent months as the recession deepens and the Government lurches from crisis to crisis. Support for Fianna Fáil has collapsed to an unprecedented low of 22 per cent and the party now trails both Fine Gael and the Labour Party in the latest Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion poll. Not since the 1920s has Fianna Fáil faced such a disillusioned and hostile electorate.

Falling living standards, rising job losses and perceived ministerial incompetence has driven this searing reassessment of Brian Cowen and his Government. More than six out of 10 voters would now welcome a change of government. They include a majority of Green supporters, even one in five Fianna Fáil supporters. The only consolation Fianna Fáil TDs can take from this threatening situation is that the wrath of voters will be visited on party MEPs and councillors in the coming June elections, rather than on themselves.

A dramatic surge in popular support for the Labour Party and its leader Eamon Gilmore, who has the highest rating of any political leader, is the most significant change since last November. Mr Gilmore succeeded in attracting the attention and approval of a broader constituency, particularly older and better-off voters. His party now enjoys more support in Dublin than Fianna Fáil and is challenging that party strongly in Munster.

The success of Labour will cause renewed nail-biting within Fine Gael. Not alone did it fail to take advantage of Fianna Fáil’s most recent difficulties, but Enda Kenny’s satisfaction rating as leader continued its year-long decline. It now stands at 30 per cent, six points clear of Mr Cowen’s disastrous showing. In both cases, a majority of respondents were dissatisfied with the quality of leadership being provided. Mr Gilmore has the highest rating among party leaders.

A historic low of 14 per cent in Government satisfaction reflects the transition from boom to bust; blame for the political ineptitude and complacency in the face of the recession and feelings of anger and helplessness by voters. Even in Fianna Fáil, a majority is now dissatisfied with the way the Government is being run, while the figure reaches 85 per cent within the Green Party. When it comes to party loyalty, however, both Mr Cowen and Mr Gormley still attract majority support.

Growing unhappiness with the Government might have been expected. Income levies from the budget took effect in January and a public service pension charge was announced last week. But harsh measures can sometimes generate approval, if those administering the unpalatable medicine convince the public they know what they are doing and their actions will have a curative effect.

So far, the Government has failed to generate public confidence that it is in control of the current crisis. This is a very serious situation. The electorate is disheartened and disenchanted. It is now looking towards the Labour Party and Fine Gael. The Government must demonstrate that it has a grip if it is to survive.