It’s been called a political ‘earthquake’, ‘avalanche’, ‘volcano’ of greater significance than the dramatic results of the 2011 election. Many are left scratching their heads as to what the results of Election 2016 tell us about what is happening to the Irish party political system.
In seeking to assess its meaning, the important first point is to place it in the context of longer-term shifts as no one election on its own is sufficient to understand the shape of the future Irish political party system that is emerging. But it is clear that fundamental shifts are taking place, with something emerging that will be a radical reconfiguration of the system that emerged in the late 1920s/early 1930s out of more than a decade of civil strife.
The first and obvious sign of fundamental change is that between them Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have achieved less than 50% of the votes cast for the first time since the 1920s. And it is the circumstances of this decline that marks its significance. For, over the past nine decades, the one alternative offered to voters when they were dissatisfied with the party in power was to switch allegiance to the other side: either FF or FG/Labour (+ others on a few occasions).
Clearly this is no longer the case. Now all the discussion is how FG and FF together offer the only realistic option for the formation of a government. Not only does this force together parties that have no fundamental differences of political ideology between them (but of course have very deep differences of history and political culture) but, more significantly, it opens up a new space to their left.
What might fill this space is now the crucial question that is going to determine the new shape of the Irish party system. It is very hard to read right now either the party or parties that might fill this space, or how long it might take to stabilise. But the options out of which it will emerge are becoming clearer.
The most familiar model that stabilised itself throughout much of western Europe in the post-war period is that a strong social democratic party might fill that space. Of course, this model is now breaking up with new radical parties emerging both on the right and the left in most countries.
While the disaster that befell Labour in this election does not seem to offer much prospect of a strong social democratic alternative emerging on the centre left, it is important to remember that one of the great successes of Election 2016 were the Social Democrats with their TDs topping the poll in each of their constituencies and fresh candidates doing well elsewhere. Their critique of the auction politics of the main parties was the one message that seemed to find resonance with a tired electorate. So the emergence of a strong social democratic grouping in time (a single party or a grouping of parties that work closely together) is not unlikely.
To the left of the social democratic option, there are two options. The one that is familiar from other European countries is the Trotskyist left, represented in Ireland by the AAA-PBP alliance. In no country has this political force emerged as more than a critical voice on the margins of the left, and while it appears that it is establishing itself as a permanent force in the Irish party system, it is unlikely to provide the basis for a governing alternative.
What is unique to Ireland is the option offered by Sinn Féin. Though the leaders of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, like to include Sinn Féin as being similar to them, this fails to take into account the history of the party and the conditions that led to its effective refounding since the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. While it has increased its parliamentary strength in Election 2016, it faces to major challenges if it is to be offer the stable basis for a progressive alternative.
The first is the toxic drag of its past that continues to limit its electoral impact. Without this, it is likely to have made a more decisive breakthrough on this occasion. This may weaken in time as memories of the Troubles fade, but the other challenge is the extent to which it offers a real alternative. The campaign it fought on this occasion mirrored far too closely the auction politics that failed to engage with much of the electorate.
Apart from these options, the one grouping that made a real breakthrough in Election 2016 are the independents. This is a unique phenomenon in European politics, due in part to the nature of our electoral system. But the real significance of the very large vote for them is that it constitutes what political analysts call an ‘anti-politics politics’, namely a rejection of the mainstream options.
But, as we saw with the emergence of a wave of anti-politics politics in Latin America in the 1990s, this usually marks a phase as a political system moves through a rejection of the old while awaiting the new to emerge. The new can happen through new left-wing parties being born or through existing parties combining in new ways, but stability requires developing a more coherent alternative.
Finally, any analysis of what we can call the ‘correlation of political forces’ presupposes that whatever forces emerge within the political system have some realistic alternative to offer beyond electoral slogans and promises. This is where a great weakness exists in the Irish system, as was illustrated so vividly during Election 2016. For we are still at a very early stage in the incubation of a serious and credible alternative project for Irish society to that of the centre-right parties whose style of politics still dominates. This issue requires much more attention.