Having discussed when the next general election will take place (see below), the next question is: who will win this election? A number of commentators have almost taken it for wrote that Fianna Fáil will lose power after the next general election, while others suggest that the Green Party could lose most, if not all, of their seats in Dáil Éireann. But will this prove to be the case and is a Fine Gael-Labour coalition virtually certain to take power after the next election?  I’d suggest that we can consider a number of potential scenarios here:

The Zombie scenario aka the “It’s Not A Case Of If But When” scenario: This scenario effectively mirrors the situation in the UK in the mid-1990s where John Major’s Conservative government clung to power until the bitter end before getting hammered by Labour in the 1997 election. This sees the current government’s popularity levels continuing to remain low, with Fianna Fáil support ratings remaining in the low-to-mid 20s and Green Party support falling below the 2 percent level. The election proves to be a nightmare for the government parties. Fianna Fáil end up practically losing a seat in every Dáil constituency (bar Laois-Offaly!) and even losing two seats in some constituencies, leaving the party without a TD in some constituencies such as Kerry North, Dublin South East and Dún Laoghaire. The Green Party fails to even come close to holding any of their six Dáil seats, most of which fall into the hands of the resurgent Fine Gael and Labour. With the number of Fianna Fáil Dáil seats left in the mid to high 40s, their only hope of retaining power lies in a left-wing coalition with Labour and Sinn Féin dashed by Labour’s reluctance, even in the face of being promised “the sun, the moon and the stars” by Brian Cowen, to be the party that revives the zombified corpse of Fianna Fáil. Brian Cowen becomes the first ever Fianna Fáil leader to leave his post while the party is in opposition, and the party faces into an uncertain future, facing the prospects of being out of power for longer than one Dáil term.

Likelihood: Given the volatile nature of the Green Party support base and the party’s dependence on vote transfers from Labour and Fine Gael in recent general elections – which are likely to dry up in 2011/2012, the prospects of a Green whitewash at the next general election are real. But, as we get closer to the next general election, I would expect Fianna Fáil support levels to recover on their currently low levels and the 25% level recorded in last year’s local elections.     

The Frankenstein scenario aka the “Sure, It Could Be Worse” scenario: Popularity ratings for the government parties start to improve somewhat during the final years of their term in office, re-electrified by evidence of a recovery in the economy, to the point that, after a competent campaign wherein Fine Gael and Labour fail to delver a killing blow, support levels for Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in the general election are down on their 2007 levels, but not dramatically so. While the Greens lose over half their seats, only retain two of their seats (Dublin North, Dublin South), their electoral performance proves to be better than expected and they also poll respectably in constituencies such as Clare, Cork South Central and Louth, leaving the party with hopes of regaining their lost seats and claiming new seats at a subsequent general election after another period in opposition. Fianna Fáil percentage share of the vote falls in the mid-to-high 30s and, though this represents the party’s lowest share of the vote since they first won power in 1932, the better than expected electoral performance means that they remain the largest party in the state in terms of Dáil seats and the party engages vigorously in post-election negotiations to form a government. While Fine Gael and Labour win a sufficient number of seats to from a government with a small majority in Dáil Éireann, Fianna Fáil manages to stay in power by offering Labour a deal that “they can’t refuse”, including an acceptance of virtually all aspects of Labour’s election manifesto and an agreement to rotate the post of Taoiseach.

Likelihood: Not by any means beyond the realms of the possible, especially given the existence of a residual personal, or localised, for individual Fianna Fáil candidates (“good constituency workers”) even at the worst of times. While Fianna Fáil (at 22%) currently trail Labour (at 24%) in the opinion polls, as we saw with the local elections, when it comes down to the actual voting Fianna Fáil will tend to outpoll Labour significantly mainly because of Labour’s weaker party organisation and the significant areas within the state where Labour Party support is minimal or non-existent. As for Labour going into power with Fianna Fáil, well that’s not likely surely…oh hang on, what about 1992!!!

The Dracula scenario aka the “They Haven’t Gone Away, You Know” scenario: With an unexpected sudden recovery in Irish economic prospects in the lead up to the general election, Fianna Fáil’s support levels improve dramatically over a very short period of time, motivating the party faithful while demoralising the opposition who are left wondering if they will ever manage to get Fianna Fáil out of power. The reinvigorated Fianna Fáil machine manages to capture all the kudos from the resurgence in government popularity, with the Greens lacking the political nous to likewise capitalize, and a strong campaign sees the party’s support levels returning to the levels enjoyed in 2002 and 2007. While the Greens face into the political wilderness, with few or no Dáil deputies, Fianna Fáil is able to form a new government with support from independents and/or Sinn Féin. Fine Gael and Labour are left stunned by yet another electoral reverse, especially after having enjoyed a massive mid-term lead in the polls, and the prospect of permanent Fianna Fáil government starts to look very, very real.

Likelihood: This scenario looks about as likely as a Laois All-Ireland win at the moment, but remember that Fianna Fáil also experienced a mid-term slump in popularity and a bad local/European elections (albeit not to the levels experienced in 2009) during the lifetime of the last government, but ended up winning almost the same level of support in the subsequent general election (2007) that they did in the 2002 General Election. There are two rules to observe here. The first is that most governments experience a loss of support in mid-term, second-order elections (such as local and European elections in Ireland/the UK, or Senate/Congressional elections in the USA) before gaining support again at the following general election. Based on this rule, some degree of a resurgence in Fianna Fáil support in 2011/2012 is likely and the election may ultimately boil down to how skillful the Fine Gael and Labour leadership is in facing/resisting this. The second rule of thumb is the “it’s the economy stupid” and the fact that government survival at general elections ultimately depends on the state of the economy – in which case, a persistently weak Irish economy over the next two or three years will leave Fianna Fáil with little prospect of retaining power, although their support levels will probably recover somewhat relative to their current low ratings.

(A post containing a geographcial perspective on the next general election contest can now be viewed on the companion NUIM Geography’s Eye On The World blog.)

Update: Do great minds think alike? This blog posting proved to be very similar in tone to a piece in this week’s (Sunday, February 14) Sunday Tribune!!!

Adrian Kavanagh