About the one certainty we can take from the first days of election 2016 is that it is far from being a coronation of Enda Kenny and Fine Gael. Already under pressure from the virtually meaningless concept of ‘fiscal space’, the Irish Times opinion poll showing a drop in the party’s support set the entirely wrong mood music for the party. It all serves to enhance the spectacle of politics as spectator sport.
Nothing happened in the early days of the campaign to suggest that there is anything serious happening here, apart from the likelihood that we will see at least some new faces around the cabinet table next month (that is, if we even get that far). Gerry Adams’s claim at the launch of the Sinn Féin campaign that the election offers an opportunity ‘to elect a government that will end inequality and unfairness, to elect a government that will put the rights of citizens over the rights of the elites’ shows the extent of the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality in this election.
Indeed, it would be great if the election were to be about ending inequality and challenging the power of the elites who dominate Irish society. However, this would require a very different sort of politics, and indeed a very different sort of society, and there are no signs that we are even taking the minimal first steps towards such a politics. Using such rhetoric but being unwilling to take any serious steps towards giving it substance further cheapens politics and plays into the hands of elites who know they face no serious threats.
If we were to take seriously such aspirations, our so-called left-wing parties could take a leaf out of the election campaign waged by Podemos in Spain at the end of last year which explicitly identified the major economic interests that heavily influence the decisions of government. Indeed, they suggested that it might be more real to have the CEOs of these big companies debate their visions for the future of Spanish society in place of party leaders.
About the only words that brought some reality to the campaign in its opening days where those of President Higgins who asked the obvious question: ‘Is it possible to have a decent society and at the same time continue to lower taxes for the purposes of securing the best short-term benefit?’ It is a question screaming for an honest and detailed answer from our political leaders as they all (with the exception of the Social Democrats) seek to fool voters that both can be done at the same time.
All of this is a great disservice to citizens. It contrasts with the device that Podemos put on its election website which allowed citizens to see what the cost in terms of social investment would be the result of lowering taxes. So for each percentage cut in taxes, the impact on social investment was made clear. This educates citizens to the trade-offs that are the essence of politics; our parties prefer to trade on ignorance and make-believe.
Added to the unreality of the promises being made to voters is the unreality of the electoral arithmetic that is likely to result, barring some dramatic shift in public opinion. It is obvious to all that on current opinion poll evidence, no grouping is likely to be able to form a government. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the AAA-PBP are simply failing to answer questions on how they might get their hands on the levers of power while Fine Gael and Labour are hoping for a miracle.
Again the Spanish example is instructive and we are very likely to end up in the same situation after February 26th: six weeks after the Spanish election there continues to be complete stalemate in attempts to form a government with the likelihood of a new election looming closer by the day. And if this happens, the only significant shift being predicted by opinion polls is that Podemos will wrest leadership of the left from the PSOE.
It will be interesting to see if any sense of reality enters the Irish campaign as it develops, both on the extent of change that is on offer and on the likelihood of who might form the next government. While we wait for this, all we can do is enjoy politics as light entertainment while the elites who run our society sleep easily knowing that the current configuration of power faces no threat whatsoever.