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8 Feb, 2020 22:04

Irish election too close to call as 'historic' surge by left-wing nationalist Sinn Fein stuns establishment

Irish election too close to call as 'historic' surge by left-wing nationalist Sinn Fein stuns establishment

Polls have closed in Ireland’s general election and, with no party securing a strong lead, confusion abounds as voters wait to see which parties will agree to do business with each other to form a coalition.

An Ipsos MRBI exit poll published by Ireland’s state broadcaster RTE at 10pm shows FG, SF and FF tied with a statistically insignificant (given a margin of error of 1.3 percent) difference of 22.4, 22.3 and 22.2 percent of the vote respectively.

A Sinn Fein surge in the run up to election day looks to have translated into votes at the ballot box, allowing party leader Mary Lou McDonald to head into post-election discussions with some serious clout – and possibly even form a coalition either with another major party, or with the Green Party, the Social Democrats and independents – though the 'grand left coalition' still looks like one of the least-likely outcomes.

Nonetheless, the result still marks a historic success for Sinn Fein and will rock the Irish political establishment, which has long been dominated by the center-right Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Ironically, SF's success could have borne even more fruit if it had run enough candidates to fully capitalize on the new wave of support, indicating that not only the establishment, but even the party itself wasn’t expecting such a big spike in support. If it had done that, making up the numbers to form a coalition could have been a lot easier.

No clear route to power

If the exit poll is accurate, the outcome will pose a major conundrum for FF and FG, which have both vowed not to enter a coalition with SF, citing its historic ties with the IRA – but who will also be reluctant to give up power. If either submits to forming a coalition with McDonald, they would be breaking a major pre-election promise. To make matters more complicated, FF and FG have also said they are unlikely go into a coalition with each other, either. That may change, however, as the two parties will be determined to keep SF out of power.

No party was expected to win enough seats to lead a government by themselves, but various theoretical coalition options have been speculated on in recent weeks.

There is also the possibility of a minority government being formed through a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with another party. Ireland’s current Fine Gael government has been sustained by a confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fail – but Saturday’s results could possibly see that situation flipped.

Another option, and one unlikely to be popular among voters, is that the country could head to the polls again in a matter of weeks or months if no government can be formed.

Maintaining status quo through fear?

While FF and FG spent the election campaign attempting to present themselves as vastly different options to the electorate, Irish voters have long complained that there are no major policy differences between the two parties, which have passed the office of Taoiseach (prime minister) back and forth to each other for decades.

Both establishment parties and mainstream media spent much of the campaign hammering warnings about SF's historic ties to the IRA into voters’ heads, and cautioned that its more left-wing policies would hurt businesses. Days before the election, an Irish Times editorial warned voters to “think carefully” before casting a vote for the republican party which has consistently pushed for Irish unity, particularly in light of Brexit. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, meanwhile, warned that SF was not a “normal” party. Painting modern SF as dangerous radicals was seen by the party’s supporters as a way for the establishment to maintain the status quo through fear.

McDonald’s message to voters was that the ruling elite had shown an inability to effectively deal with a homelessness crisis, shortages in affordable housing, extortionate rents, and a worsening crisis in public healthcare – and the best option was to give SF “a chance” to do something different. 

SF message resonating with youth

SF’s success has largely been credited to McDonald herself, who brought a fresh face to the party after Gerry Adams stepped down as leader after 34 years in 2018. McDonald, who is well-liked even by many non-SF voters and widely praised as an effective debater, drew interest from young voters eager to finally see a government without FF or FG. She came out on top in a recent leaders approval rating poll, with 41 percent compared to Varadkar and FF leader Micheal Martin’s 30 percent.

Saturday night's exit poll showed that SF did exceptionally well with young voters, garnering 31.8 percent of the youth vote against FG's 15.5 percent and FF's 13.6 percent.

The level to which the SF surge rocked the typically establishment-friendly Irish media became clear when RTE barred McDonald from taking part in one of its leaders’ debates in the run-up to voting day, arguing that her chances were unrealistic. The decision prompted outrage not only from SF’s supporters but many others who regarded it as unfair.

So, while McDonald’s message has evidently resonated with voters, it is still far from clear exactly who will make up the next government.

Whatever happens, it certainly looks like the days of Ireland's two-party system of FF and FG are effectively over as Sinn Fein becomes a significant political force.

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