Why the next general election may not be until May 2019
Eighth Amendment vote and presidential election will both influence timing of the poll
President Michael D Higgins. His election to a second term or replacement by a rival will exert influence on when the next general election will be held. Photograph: Leonardo Munoz/EPA
Politicians and their strategists traditionally spend late August and early September brushing up on their election preparations and recalibrating their constituency operations. This year they will do so with no ability to guess the date of the next general election.
While the current Government will not last the full term, many are beginning to think it will last longer than initially envisaged. Since the change of Fine Gael leader didn’t collapse the Government, it may in fact have cured it of at least some of its vulnerability.
If Finian McGrath’s glowing account to the Sunday Business Post earlier this month is to be believed, the Independent Alliance appears much happier with the new Taoiseach. Katherine Zappone and Denis Naughton are also working well with him.
Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil, which really wants to show that confidence-and-supply arrangements can work, has reason to be more nervous about facing an election against a Leo Varadkar-led Fine Gael than one led by Enda Kenny.
There are a number of other polling dates in the mix in the next 24 months which may also have a bearing on the date of a general election.
The first of these is the promised referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Its timing is beginning to slip. The substantial work of the Oireachtas committee dealing with the matter will not begin until October and in reality is unlikely to finalise its deliberations and recommendations before January 2018.
Then a complex legal and political process will be required to frame the wording of the precise proposals to be put to the people. There would have to follow a painstaking process of ventilating and explaining what the provision in the proposed constitutional text and/or legislation mean and how they are likely to be subsequently interpreted. Rushing either of these stages risks a nasty, confusing and unsuccessful referendum.
Ministers no longer talk about holding that referendum next spring. There had been hints of a date in June 2018 until it was pointed out this would deprive students and younger voters abroad for the summer from participating. The Taoiseach talked most recently of May. Finalising matters so that they are referendum-ready by early next summer is unlikely to be possible however.
Some proponents of change argue the referendum must be held before Pope Francis visits next August.
This reflects an outdated view of the impact of the Catholic Church on social debate in this country. Pope Francis will attract large crowds in Ireland, including tens of thousands visiting for the World Meeting of Families.
Fighting a presidential election as an incumbent presents particular challenges
Just because many Irish voters will attend or follow coverage of his visit does not mean any pronouncements he makes on abortion will move many in the middle ground. The view of Irish voters on both sides are not as influenced by Catholic teaching as some in either the church or in reproductive rights groups would lead us to believe.
The other key polling day that could occur next year is the presidential election. If there is a contest, the election will have to be held at some point within the 60 days before President Michael D Higgins’s current term ends on November 10th, 2018.
Speculation about the line-up for a presidential election always starts during the silly season in the year before any President’s term ends. This August has been no different. In reality, however, there will be no need for the President to declare his intentions before next summer.
It seems at this stage there are two views in Higgins’s circle. Some argue that finishing after one term would mean he would end on a high, after an almost-flawless presidency. He is not only widely respected, even by those who didn’t vote for him, but is also fondly regarded.
Some argue that contesting for a second term risks endangering some of that standing. Fighting a presidential election as an incumbent presents particular challenges in the context of modern electoral law requirements and modern media.
The other view is that Higgins is by far the best person to do the job and so should continue to do so. This is a view likely to be shared by an overwhelming majority of the electorate. The Balkanisation of our politics means it seems likely some other candidate would get the 20 Oireachtas or four county council nominations necessary to run against Higgins, but the chance of any such candidate beating him appears slim.
There is a further polling date, already fixed, which may also impact the date of the next general election. The Constitution mandates that local elections be held every five years and so they loom not later than May 22nd, 2019. The European election will be held the same day.
If the Government does bed down more comfortably under Varadkar, then a general election, local election and European election on the same day in May 2019 could be a real possibility.