Recent reports indicate Fine Gael thinks it has hit rock bottom and a second election can not possibly hit it any harder than the first. That’s unlikely to be the case.
A large number of people in Fine Gael seem to believe that the exit polling shows that their campaign in the last week to peel voters away from Fianna Fail, by saying that Fianna Fail would go into government with Sinn Fein, worked. If you look at the actual vote result, instead of the exit polling, there’s limited evidence of that actually happening but whatever, they believe it to be true so let’s treat it as if it were true.
If it’s true that that campaign was effective, and they pulled voters from Fianna Fail, then it’s immediately obvious that they still have voters they can lose – they can lose the voters who voted for them in the last week based on keeping Sinn Fein out of office.
Those voters will have shifted to Fine Gael because Fine Gael told them they would keep Sinn Fein out of office, but now we have a situation in which Fianna Fail appears to be willing to consider coalition with Fine Gael, but Fine Gael are refusing to negotiate and seem to be saying that they want a Sinn Fein government, either with the other left-wing parties or with Fianna Fail. Considering the situation it is entirely possible that those voters who switched will feel that they have been lied to by Fine Gael.
How, exactly does Fine Gael, think it can keep those voters in a second election?
Even if they’re wrong that their campaign in the last week worked there is still the question of how many of Fine Gael’s other voters would consider switching to Fianna Fail if they think Fianna Fail is the only way of stopping a Sinn Fein Government in a second election.
Fine Gael very clearly wants to be in opposition, and they’re almost certainly correct that opposition is the best place for them to regroup, but they appear to have ceded the entire idea of forming a government to Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, largely due to their refusal to negotiate the formation of a government with Martin.
They expected Martin to go in with Sinn Fein if Fine Gael left the field, but if he doesn’t bend on that, and at this point he hasn’t left himself a lot of room to bend, Fine Gael are setting themselves up to have a very rocky second election.
If they had agreed to negotiate the formation of a Government with Martin, even if they had zero intention of actually forming a Government, they could have been able to present themselves as having tried but failed due to policy issues or whatever other reason they found convenient. By failing to do so they’ve given Martin the ability to present Fianna Fail as the only alternative to Sinn Fein and the alphabet soup of the left.
As things stand it won’t be difficult for Fianna Fail to present Fine Gael as an entity which has entirely given up on governing. Questions like “Why should you vote for a political party that won’t go into government even if it has the numbers?” will start getting thrown around pretty quickly in an election.
And rightly so, Fine Gael sources have been all over the media since the election saying that they will not form a government with Fianna Fail and that “maybe a Sinn Fein government, to let the people see how bad it will be, is the best option for the country”.
Fine Gael can negate that advantage by engaging, in a limited way, with Fianna Fail, but they need to get the public to believe that they want to be in power and will be a player in the next election because ‘we will sit this game out’ is going to be rather a hard sell to the electorate, even those who are loyal to Fine Gael. The public will support a winning team, they will even support a losing team to some degree, but Fine Gael are setting themselves for an election in which people are asked to support a team that won’t even go onto the pitch.
It’s entirely possible that Sinn Fein has hit the apex of its appeal, in popular vote terms, but if they can field more decent candidates in a second election, and the quality of some of their recently elected candidates indicates that won’t be as easy to do as people think it will be, they could easily see a fall in vote share and an increase in their seats held.
If that happens, or if Sinn Fein’s vote share increases, and Fianna Fail try and increase their result by cannibalising Fine Gael, the next election could easily see Fine Gael fall off the edge and right into the abyss.