When the 32nd Dáil commences in a few weeks’ time, it will contain the most Independent and small party TDs in the State’s history. The most recent Red C poll sees Independents and others on a staggering 28 per cent – only 2 points behind a resurging Fine Gael, and substantially higher than any of the other traditional parties. Though this number has fluctuated over the last few weeks, it is projected that the February 26th election will return somewhere in the region of 37 seats for Independents and small parties.
The makeup of this seismic shift is somewhat different to other anti-establishment movements occurring in Europe and America, as it has not manifested itself in a left or right collective. The shift here has solely come about as a result of a total sense of alienation between much of the electorate and the establishment parties. People, rightly or wrongly, feel let down and betrayed by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour and are in search of something different. This can be seen throughout all demographics, from first-time student voters to pensioners.
In America, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are considered nontraditional candidates for different reasons, and both have seen unprecedented support for their respective ideas and policy proposals.
Over the last year, politics has become increasingly polarised. There has been a large movement towards non-traditional parties throughout the Western world. In America, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are considered nontraditional candidates for different reasons, and both have seen unprecedented support for their respective ideas and policy proposals. In Spain, Podemos secured over 20 per cent of the vote in December’s general election, ending the historical two-party system. The Syriza party in Greece secured an unexpected victory in spite of economic turmoil. And the Scottish National Party won 56 out of 59 seats in the UK’s May general election, beating candidates from more traditional parties.
What separates these movements from the rising support for Independents and small parties in Ireland is their collective nature. The anti-establishment movements in both Europe and America have been galvanised by particular sets of issues – namely, immigration on the right and inequality on the left. Ireland’s anti-establishment movement is a mash-up of diverging principles and has no distinct set of beliefs at all. Despite the resurgence in the economy over the last few years, the average Irish voter is fed up with the traditional parties. They are not yet ready to trust Fianna Fáil and they think Labour sold out five years ago, while Fine Gael has overseen crises in housing and health. As a result, many see Independents and small parties as the only viable alternative.
Though it will make gains in the upcoming election, the biggest fall in support in the latest Red C poll was for Sinn Féin – down 4points to 16 per cent. Sinn Féin appears to be the perfect party to draw in left-leaning, disillusioned voters. It opposes water charges (despite defending them in the North) and the property tax, while it pledges to make Ireland a more equal society with high taxes for the rich and huge improvements to public services. The main reason the anti-establishment movement has not grown around Sinn Féin is because of its leader, Gerry Adams. Despite much of the Irish electorate’s ill-feelings and lack of trust for the traditional government parties, many voters cannot get themselves to vote for a party run by a man with alleged links to a terrorist organisation. As a result, we are left with a multifaceted movement centred round no particular party or set of beliefs.
The campaign to repeal the eighth amendment is a priority issue among many student voters, as well as student fees.
However, Sinn Féin’s history and the lack of coherence that electing a host of Independents would entail may not be a concern for some student voters looking for change. According to the National Youth Council of Ireland, data from the 2014 local elections suggests that young people voted more for Sinn Féin and Independent candidates than the population as a whole, and there is reason to believe that they will do the same in this election considering students have historically voted more for left-wing candidates than the rest of the electorate. After all, many young voters do not have the same party loyalties as older voters, and their worries are unique to the larger electorate. The campaign to repeal the eighth amendment is a priority issue among many student voters, as well as student fees. Undoubtedly there will be a debate in the coming years about whether a student loan scheme should be introduced to meet the need for increased funding to third-level institutions. Though with Labour’s outright refusal to rule out increases in student fees, young voters will be looking around to see which candidates will benefit them the most.
Historically, Independents in government have only been there to make up the numbers in return for investment in their local area, such as a new hospital or school. What’s problematic with so many Independent and small party candidates projected to win seats is that it is difficult to see a stable coalition being formed. There are moderates who could contribute to the government within Shane Ross’ Alliance and neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil has ruled out going into coalition with the Social Democrats or Renua. However, three or more party coalitions in the past have proven to be unstable and could collapse within a few months – let alone a few years.
The next few days of campaigning will be crucial in determining what the political landscape will look like after February 26th. Though Fine Gael has a positive economic message, its mantra of “Keep the Recovery Going” has failed to hit home with many people both young and old, who are yet to feel the benefits of a recovering economy. The coalition parties will be hoping votes will sway to them as the electorate realises the possible consequences of a Dáil filled with a conglomerate of different parties and Independents. If not, we could be in for a period of instability, or what everyone dreads: another election.