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Election Results – The failure of Opposition

Joe Craig

24th May 2002

So, despite the brown envelopes and blank cheques, the Ansbacher accounts and tax evasion, despite the dissatisfaction over health services and growth in inequality, Fianna Fail (FF) are back in government.  Their vote increased from 39.3% in 1997 to 41.5% but because of clever vote management and transfers from other parties it will obtain around 49% of the seats, just short of an overall majority.  If five independents, who might more accurately be called Independent Fianna Failers, are included then Bertie Ahern already has his majority.

It is noteworthy however that pundits are predicting that he will form a new coalition with the Progressive Democrats (PDs) – Ireland’s unashamed Thatcherites.  Noteworthy because despite their success it is widely recognised that the boom economy that won Fianna Fail the election has decelerated sharply and that severe challenges loom ahead.  This is what lies behind Ahern’s remark that he seeks a strong and stable government.  He knows that unpopular attacks on living standards are going to be required very soon, not least to fill the €1 to €2 billion hole in the public finances and to win the re-run of the Nice Treaty referendum.  As strong a government as possible will be necessary and the PDs can help provide both the votes and political cover.

Fianna Fail

In an election studded with significant developments it would be easy to pass over the FF performance without giving it the attention it warrants. Commentators are now saying that ‘the Republic (could) be a one party state in which Fianna Fail (is) the only credible candidate for power’ (Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times).  It commands the allegiance of a significant section of the working class and its vote in Dublin and other urban areas is not a great deal below that in the rest of the state.  This means a significant section of workers display no evidence of political consciousness of themselves as a class and accept the political arguments advanced by their class enemy.  While Fianna Fail is presented as a catch all party it is in fact the main party of the Irish capitalist class.

While the vote for FF is the most significant result of the election it should be appreciated, after all the praise for Ahern dies down, that Charlie Haughey won a higher slice of the vote in each of the five elections in which he put himself forward for Taoiseach.  The party vote has shown no significant reversal of the decline evident since the landslide election of 1977 when Fianna Fail gained its last overall majority.

Its coalition partner the Progressive Democrats presented themselves as the only party that could ‘mind’ FF and prevent its arrogance and corruption getting out of control.  Such a cynical platform – don’t trust the bastards but trust us to put them into government – doesn’t do justice to the nasty character of this party.  Its revival is one reflection of the growing inequality that has characterised the boom economy although its vote actually fell by 0.72% to 3.96% even while it doubled its seats from four to eight.

Its election platform of income tax cuts for the rich, from 42 to 40 percent, and its promotion of wide scale privatisation allows it to be the perfect foil to FF which still likes in some quarters to present itself as a party of the people, a party of the left.

Fine Gael

The election ushered in a period in which FF is the only perceived possible head of government because of the collapse of Fine Gael, leading to confident announcements of ‘the end of civil war politics.’  This party has also been in long term decline, receiving the lowest share of the vote since 1948!  Its drop of 5% to 22.5% only masks the extent of its fall.  FG lost 23 seats, down to 31 - only 19% of the seats and actually worse than 1948, including a whole swathe of its leadership – its current deputy leader, a former leader and deputy leader, its current chief whip and a further ten front benchers.

The party has almost been wiped out in the capital – falling from 12 seats to 4 and eight of its ten weakest constituencies are in Dublin, if one includes Dun Laoghaire.  That it doesn’t have a TD in the latter has been described as similar to the British Tories losing Kensington or Chelsea.  Its support held up only among large farmers.  Leader Michael Noonan has resigned and no one is sure who might replace him.

Fine Gael seems finished as the alternative pole of government not least because FF will have many suitors for coalition among the so-called opposition parties. For a capitalist party this spells real problems.  What careerist wants to join a party that cannot promise the mercs and perks of office?  There never was any fundamental difference between the two ‘civil war’ parties and in this election the realisation that Fine Gael, with nothing to offer from an unpopular leader, could not form an alternative government persuaded many of its middle class supporters to vote for other parties.  For socialists this is a welcome development.  It clarifies the choices facing workers.

An exit poll conducted for RTE reported that one third of FG defectors went to FF, one third to Labour and one third to independents with only 4% going to the PDs.  If this is true then underneath the surface greater changes are taking place with FF possibly losing some of its working class support to be replaced by defectors from FG.  This may also be true of the Labour Party which had a very poor election.

While it retained its total of 21 seats its vote fell by 2.14% to 10.77%, in circumstances where other perceived ‘left’ parties made gains.  When we realise that the combined forces of the Labour Party and Democratic Left that are now merged lost over 13% of its vote on the 1997 result and since 1992 its vote has nearly halved we can see that it has fared even worse than FG.  It lost Dick Spring its previous leader and very nearly its current leader Ruairi Quinn.  Its result fits a pattern across Europe in which social democrats have been punished for implementing neo-liberal policies that have hurt their working class support.  This is no less true of Ireland despite their lack of working class support in the first place, their earlier drubbing in 1997 for entering coalition with FF and the economic boom that has allowed limited increases in living standards while inequality has increased.

Labour fundamentally failed to identify or be identified with the dissatisfaction with this rising inequality and the crisis of public services which became its most open expression.  Its failure along with that of FG revealed the election as a vote of no confidence in this ‘official’ opposition.  Indeed this is perhaps, for socialists, the most significant feature of the political landscape.  A crisis of perspectives has been opened up for all those claiming opposition to the returned governmental majority.  It’s just that some don’t yet recognise it and in failing to do so reveal only their short term horizon and ultimate failure to represent a genuine opponent.

Greens & Sinn Fein

This is certainly true of the Green Party and Sinn Fein (SF), widely credited as the winners in the election. The Greens increased their vote by 1.09% to 3.85% but increased their seats from two to six.  However it was Sinn Fein who were undoubtedly the real winners, increasing their vote from 2.5% in 1997 to 6.51% and adding four seats to their existing one.

However while the figures may be relatively impressive the politics are not and while the foreign, especially British, press sounded some alarm at Sinn Fein’s rise the Irish establishment appeared to take a relatively relaxed view, which is perfectly understandable.  Waving the tricolour doesn’t have the same effect in the South though some Sinn Fein members appear not to appreciate this.  All Gerry Adams could promise both during and after the election was an undefined ‘change’ which could be interpreted in the banal sense of today being different from yesterday and tomorrow being different from today but which in the North has meant a reactionary politics completely compatible with coalition with the most bigoted parties of unionism.

The vote for other candidates increased by 1.11% to10.94% but these range from Fianna Failers who failed party selection contests to the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins who was returned with 6,442 first preference votes, almost the same total as in 1997.  Noteworthy was the emergence of at least five candidates campaigning on health related issues – highlighting the neglect of the service despite, or rather in many ways as a result of the boom economy.  It is notable that the emergence of this vote ran parallel to, and not through, the rise of Sinn Fein, even in Cavan-Monaghan where SF had its sitting TD.  SF was obviously not seen as an adequate vehicle for expressing these concerns.

While reflecting genuine anger and a willingness to oppose establishment parties these candidates can in no way be identified as socialist or even left wing and often reflect the most localist of concerns.  To lump together all the independents in one category of ‘radicalisation’ as we can expect some on the left to do obscures what is happening as much as it informs.  It is certainly no guide to future strategy.

Crisis of Perspective

A crisis of opposition now exists.  Fine Gael has been advised by well-wishers to position itself on the left to capture the perceived radicalisation of those opposed to Fianna Fail but the ‘blueshirts’ as a party of the left has no credibility.  Others recommend it being true to itself, and predicting that FF will baulk at attacks on living standards required to correct the public finances, advise a shift to the right.  The implausibility of both strategies shows the depth of their crisis.

The Labour Party may consider moving left but its increasing reliance on middle class votes risks losing as much as it gains.  Its recent history under Dick Spring of exploiting anger at a Fianna Fail government only to keep it in power after an election has not been forgotten. Its ill concealed craving for office, which could only be with FF or FG rules out a credible ‘left’ approach.

Quinn has waxed lyrically about Labour being well placed to ‘provide strong opposition,’ ‘coherence to the opposition’ and ‘crucially placed to provide leadership’ but the election results have already exposed such nonsense.  The alternative of ‘rolling up our sleeves and getting involved more in community issues’ as Roisin Shortall TD put it simply represents a strategy of going deeper into the clientelist politics that FF made its own until Sinn Fein came along.

The Greens have not even tried to conceal their disappointment at not being asked to go into coalition with Fianna Fail: ‘it would have been nice to be in government’ said its leader Trevor Sargent but they would just have to ‘make the best if it.’  By way of opposition they can do no more than look forward to the next elections at which point presumably they will have the strength to move effortlessly from opposition to the establishment, becoming its most conscientious members, like its counterparts in Europe.

Mitchell McLoughlin of Sinn Fein called immediately after the election for an opposition within the opposition and ‘an alliance of progressive, radical forces to bring about equality.’  The Greens have already refused and it has been reported that some independents are already uniting to determine the price of supporting Fianna Fail.  The alternative being offered by SF is nothing radical anyway.  Its publicity director, Dawn Doyle said ‘it means convincing business that we have solid business policies, that we are not anti-business.’  After the last election the sole SF TD supported Bertie Ahern for Taoiseach and McLoughlin has said that ‘something similar is very possible on this occasion’

Sinn Fein, like the Greens, itch to be in government with FF and having spent most of the last couple of years denying such intentions they spent most of the last six months declaring that FF would come knocking if they needed to.  The likelihood of a FF/PD or FF/Independents government coalition will continue to allow both parties to play at loyal opposition, all the longer to lead workers up yet another blind ally.  But the potential sharpness of the struggles to come, over public sector pay, privatisation and Nice will still create problems for this deceitful strategy.

The contradiction in this election has been that the victorious government party was defeated in two major referenda in the past year and lost the abortion referendum just weeks before the election – seeing a sustained attempt by Bertie Aherne to build a more stable coalition with the Catholic right come crashing down in flames.  Now we have a Fianna Fail triumph and the appearance that they no longer need a coalition – but they are still in danger of loosing the next Nice referendum and face major struggles over public services such as health and education.

The contradiction is easy to understand.  It is the contradiction between class consciousness and combativity.  Workers don’t recognise the class interests served by the Fianna Fail party but, partly because of this lack of class understanding, they are willing to oppose the government and fight on local or immediate issues.  There can however, be only one eventual outcome to a struggle in which one of the contestants is blind and the fragmentation of the opposition in the elections shows how far we have to go to build a credible opposition.  In this regard the left made a miserable contribution and we deal with their role in another article.

The Irish State, in common with the rest of Europe, witnessed a continuing fall in turnout that has occurred in seven of the last eight general elections and which was only slightly reversed in 1987.  Twenty years ago over 76% went to the polls while in this election the figure was down to 62.73% with even lower turnouts in working class constituencies.  This reveals, along with the disaffection of increasing numbers with the main establishment parties, the search for new vehicles of opposition and fragmentation of that opposition, a growing alienation from the existing system even while it delivered unprecedented economic growth.  The domination of the working class by parties that don’t even claim to represent their interests is a measure of the poverty of class-consciousness that has to be transformed if the existing economic and political system is to be successfully challenged.



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