Emerging face of new Dáil and what it means

Support for establishment parties is falling, but slowly, and gains for some candidates on the left could not be described as a transformation in political ideology, writes Theresa Reidy

AS THE results came in over the weekend, discussion raged about the radical transformation of the political system. There was talk of the final collapse of the old guard and a surge to the left.

The election results have thrown up a very complex set of numbers when it comes to forming a government but the overall ideological composition is not that much changed.

Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Labour form the old guard of the political system and combined their share of the vote was much reduced with Labour bearing the brunt of the seat losses.

The government parties saw their support levels plummet by more than 20 points. Fine Gael and Labour dropped just over 10 points each, a resounding rejection of their government and 2016 campaigns.

But the destination of their lost votes throws up a very mixed picture. Fianna Fáil was a big winner and will be the second-largest party in the new Dáil and they’ve come very close to challenging Fine Gael for the top spot.

On the face of it, it looks like a great many voters who left Fianna Fáil for Fine Gael in 2011 returned to Fianna Fáil in 2016. There has been another rebalancing between the parties, but combined they still get the votes of 50% of the electorate, down just three points from their 2011 combined total. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s grip on the electorate is weakening but it is happening slowly.

Labour will return to the new Dáil, probably with seven seats, greatly reduced but old parties like Labour, that are long established in the party system, rarely fade away, they will regroup and rebuild.

Small parties and Independents also soaked up votes from those disaffected with the Government. But again, there is some complexity to the picture here.

It was a weekend of mixed fortunes for small parties. The Greens are back; resurgent is too strong a phrase but what is very interesting about them is that they have recovered from having lost all of their seats.

Small parties rarely manage this and it is a good omen for the Greens. The Social Democrats had a good weekend. All three of their TDs were re-elected with each one topping the poll, quite an electoral feat for a new party. But they failed to elect any new candidates and really only challenged for an extra seat in one constituency. They will now benefit from state funding of political parties and have the opportunity to build their movement. Their performance might best be termed consolidation rather than expansion.

Sinn Féin had a good weekend. They increased their vote share, their number of TDs and, importantly, consolidated their geographic reach. They are now challenging in every constituency in the country and are an electoral force to be reckoned with.

Polls some months back were suggesting a stronger performance which is why some of the discussion about their performance is tempered with questions about their campaign and the leadership of Gerry Adams.

AAA-PBP got 3.9% of the popular vote and has five TDs elected already with the chance of two more. They have a growing urban vote and their policy platform resonates strongly in constituencies where there is acute economic deprivation. They will have at least doubled their number of TDs and have had a very good weekend.

The Greens, Social Democrats, Sinn Féin, and AAA-PBP are all on the left of the political spectrum.

Parties on the left generally favour a greater role for the government in managing the economy but it is important to understand the left as a spectrum with many of the centre left parties having more in common with parties on the centre right than parties on the far end of the left spectrum.

Parties on the far left commonly believe that government and the economy should be fused and government should direct economic activity while those on the centre left support market based economic structures but favour a more equal allocation of resources and see the government as having a role in redistribution.

Parties on the left had a reasonably good weekend but it is a mixed picture. The Greens gained two, the Social Democrats held their own. Sinn Féin which we might term, the mid left increased their number by more than a third while AAA-PBP on the far left will double their numbers.

With 148 seats filled, these parties now have 32 seats and a few more to come. There are also some left-wing independents elected. But Labour has always seen itself as being of the centre left and it had a terrible weekend.

The 32nd Dáil will be smaller and there will be fewer left-wing TDs. What has happened is a redistribution on the left with voters favouring parties further to the left but it would be hard to term the results a surge to the left.

Not all small parties did well this weekend. Renua had a dreadful weekend. They went into the election with three sitting TDs and now have none. Creighton performed well in the leaders’ debate and they had some clearly defined policies but they did not connect with voters. Independents had a good election. Their number has increased sharply but several of those elected have close links to the parties and this could prove helpful for government formation.

There are many new faces, the party profile has changed but the ideological change has been moderate, albeit with the caveat that the new distribution makes government formation greatly more complicated than before.

Theresa Reidy is a political scientist in the Department of Government at University College Cork.

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