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Ireland’s upcoming election

February 9, 2011

Henry Farrell over at The Monkey Cage has an extremely useful post on the upcoming Irish elections, scheduled for February 25. New elections were called following the collapse in January of the coalition between the long-dominant Fianna Fail and the Green Party. Green Party deputies were outraged when Irish Prime Minister and Fianna Fail leader Brian Cowen tried to reshuffle some cabinet positions in an effort to assuage voter anger over the country’s economic crisis and the subsequent EU-IMF negotiated financial rescue package.

Because of Ireland’s unusual voting system, in which voters rank several candidates in order of preference, and in which each district elects several members to parliament, election results are usually difficult to predict based on simple polling data. One thing most observers agree on, however, is that the election will be a disaster for Fianna Fail, which has received a plurality of seats in the parliament in every election since 1932. The only debate is over how severe the electoral debacle will be for the party.

Most observers expect the main opposition party Fine Gael to emerge with the most seats. Since it is unlikely to gain an outright majority in the new legislature, however, the question is whom it will rule in coalition with. The most likely candidate is the Labour Party, but some have predicted that the nationalist Sinn Fein might capitalize on the discontent among voters generated by the EU bailout that was signed in November 2010.

Whatever the case, the election outcome will have an important impact on the implementation of the conditions that were agreed upon as part of the financial rescue package. The leaders of both Fine Gael and Labour have promised to renegotiate many of the terms of the agreement, and Sinn Fein has promised to go even further. Opponents of the package are particularly rankled by the 6% interest rates that Ireland will have to pay on loans released by the EU Stabilization Fund, rates they regard as excessively punitive. European Central Bank executive board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi scoffed at that suggestion, saying that there would be no renegotiations. Voters are also angry over the perception that Ireland alone is being forced to bear the burden, while the European banks that made risky loans to Irish institutions are being let off the hook. Finally, the package requires Ireland to implement austerity policies, including sharp cuts on social spending.

The February 25 elections could mark a genuinely transformative moment in Ireland’s political development.

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