By Tomás M. Creamer
If this year’s bunch of elections are any indication, the three established parties that have ruled the state between them since its foundation (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour) are going to have a problem in maintaining their hold on the levers of power from now on.
In 1982, these three parties obtained over 90% of the vote. In the last general election (2011), their share came to around 73%. However, in last May’s European election, these three parties got less than 50% of the vote between them, for the first time in the State’s history. And they did not get much more in the Local Elections that took place the same day.
The by-elections also confirm this trend. In Dublin South-West, the Socialist candidate, Paul Murphy, got over 27% of the first preference vote – more than the three “major” parties combined. Even in Roscommon-South Leitrim, which is a relatively “typical” rural constituency, the likes of which Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have historically exercised complete dominance in the past, these two got less than 40% of the vote, while Labour’s John Kelly received 6%.
You could dismiss some of this as a “protest” vote against the government: except that if it were solely an anti-government vote, you would have expected Fianna Fail – the main opposition party – to have reaped the benefits.
Instead, they are stagnant, on the mid to low 20’s in support – respectable, you could say, compared to the thrashing they got in 2011. However, considering that support for the Fine Gael/Labour coalition has collapsed from 55% to around 35% in the latest polls, you would think that the major opposition party would have been doing better.
Why is this the case? Fianna Fail may have a point about the incumbent government’s constant sniping about the flaws of the last (Fianna Fail-led) government, very few people outside of Fianna Fail’s ageing cohort of die-hard supports would disagree with the assertion that Fianna Fail have a long way to go before they could be trusted with power again. For some, Fianna Fail is simply too toxic to ever vote for again.
However, this decline in the support for the “establishment” parties is not unique to Ireland – despite a voting system that actively discriminates against smaller parties, both the British Labour and Conservative parties seem unlikely to be able to form a majority government in Westmister after next year’s general election, which could leave the door open for the Scottish National Party (SNP) or the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
In Italy, despite set-backs, the “Five-Star Movement”, lead by former Comedian Beppe Grillo, remains a powerful new force in Italian politics, with over 20% of the vote, and consistently polling as the second-largest party in Italy. Meanwhile, the Far-Left Syriza Party and the Far-Right Golden Dawn have grown increasingly popular in Greece, while the once dominant Social Democratic PASOK party is now little more than a fringe element in Greek politics.
Party membership, with the exception of the spectacular expansion of the SNP in the aftermath of the failed Independence referendum, has steadily declined across Europe – political loyalties are lessening, and turnout rates have generally declined across the board. Why?
Well, it would be a bit of an exaggeration that people of our generation are completely apathetic about current issues – after all, why is there still a political section in SIN? It is the process of politics itself that people have become disillusioned by, not necessarily political issues. If the huge water charge protests are any indication, many people, even in our generation, cares about what way our country is going.
But from my own experience, a lot of people just don’t bother voting because they believe that the system is simply unreformable. And the major parties don’t mind having this impression take hold – they like the status quo, and as long as their hold on power is secure, they don’t really care about changing anything.
Ultimately, 2016 will be historic for two reasons – the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, and a General election that will be no less historic, if the trends hold true until then.
Please vote. you don’t vote, then the establishment is definitely not going to change. Even if you feel that you have no choice but to vote for “protest” candidates, if enough people vote for these candidates, the establishment is going to have to change some things in order to claw back market share. Many people in this world are not luckily enough to live in free democracies – we should be thankful for the right the vote, and indeed, should be proud of it.