Pre-election alliances could help counter ‘seismic shock’ to the party system

The roots of the current fragmentation of the party system run deeper than the recession

While economic turmoil appears to have abated in Ireland, the political turmoil that usually accompanies this may be about to begin.

Economic circumstances can have a significant impact on political parties' electoral fortunes. Parties that govern through prosperity tend to be re-elected, and those that preside over recession tend to be voted out of office. The fortunes of Fianna Fáil in recent years best exemplify this pattern.

However, while the 2011 general election was the third most volatile in post-war European history, it was also remarkably stable in that between them, Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil won the same number of seats as they had at the height of the economic boom, in 2002.

Ireland was also spared the political instability experienced by other countries suffering a recession because of the large majority enjoyed by the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition.


It could afford to lose TDs and junior ministers over abortion, hospital and health-related issues, which in previous administrations might well have resulted in the government’s collapse.

This large majority has masked the political upheaval that has been taking place over the past few years. Support for parties and candidates outside of the trio who have dominated Irish politics has grown since 2011, with opinion polls consistently showing almost a 50-50 split among voters between these three parties and the alternative.

While support for Fine Gael and Labour may well increase in the run-up to the next election, an economic recovery is unlikely to restore matters to the status quo. This is because the roots of the current fragmentation of the party system run deeper than the recession.

There are two particular factors that have contributed to this fragmentation. The first is the declining level of attachment to parties, which in Ireland is at the lowest level of any mature democracy. In 2011, as few as one in five Irish voters said they were close to a party.

The consequence is that parties can no longer rely on voter loyalties, which contributed to stable outcomes in the past. Voters are far more likely to be switching between parties and candidates from one election to the next, contributing to high levels of volatility.


The other big impact on the party system has been the collapse of Fianna Fáil. The dominant party of Irish politics from 1932 to 2007, Fianna Fáil structured the party system as competition was essentially about it versus everyone else.

The impact of these two changes is that where once a bipolar system existed, there are now four pillars, all of which are garnering 20 to 30 per cent: Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and independents plus others (although the coherency of the latter pillar is questionable).

If these figures are repeated at the next election, the only clear majority arrangements seem to be unlikely combinations involving two of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. All other potential governments will need to include some of the others, who could comprise Renua, the Social Democrats, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People before Profit, the Workers and Unemployed Action Group, perhaps the Greens, the independent alliance plus other independents. In such a scenario, one of the three following outcomes could materialise.

The first is that it could take a long time to form a government, perhaps not to the extreme of Belgium, where the last three governments have taken an average of 10 months to form. But it could certainly be a prolonged period, which in a system lacking lower levels of government with considerable powers as in Belgium, would not be ideal.

The second scenario is that we could have frequent changes of government in between elections, à la Italy, where the average length of post-war cabinets was less than a year, up until major institutional reforms in the 1990s.

In such a situation, we could have many of the small parties and Independents bed-hopping from one government to another. While this might seem quite unstable, many of the parties and ministers might remain the same, with change confined to the fringes of cabinet.

The third scenario is frequent elections, repeating what happened in the early 1980s when there were three Dáil elections in 18 months.

Each of these scenarios could make elections less decisive, and perhaps more ominously, less relevant. With no clear winner, it will be the parties who decide what government forms.

This will have the consequence of making government less accountable. Even if voters punish a governing party at the polls, such as Labour at the next election, there is no guarantee that this will remove it from office.

This might only increase the existing disillusionment with the political system and result in further volatility, perhaps with voters drifting to more extreme anti-establishment parties.

One solution to prevent such a situation is to engineer institutional reforms to encourage the formation of pre-election alliances. Voters would then know what type of coalition they were voting for, and the outcome would not be an unforeseen arrangement.


This would maintain a level of transparency and accountability and give whatever government forms a popular mandate to implement its policies. It would also make it less likely for the electorate to reject a government if they feel it is a concoction of the parties and not the voters, an outcome that would seriously undermine the stability of Irish democracy.

If the polls prove correct, then 2011 will have been the phoney earthquake election. The real seismic shock to the party system may be just around the corner.

Dr Liam Weeks lectures in the Department of Government, University College Cork