A recent Irish Times/MRBI pre-election poll (20/1/20) has indicated that an overwhelming majority of Irish voters – no less than 75% – now want a change of government. Significantly, over one in three voters believe “it is time for a radical change of direction for the country.”
Given the abysmal failures of judgment and leadership evinced by the sitting government on critical issues such as healthcare, public spending, and housing, it is entirely understandable that the public would now have an appetite for change.
After all, there is no reason to think that the present government, if re-elected, will offer the sort of intelligence, fresh thinking and creativity required to successfully tackle the ongoing housing, healthcare, and budgetary crises.
To make a bad situation worse, Fine Gael’s main rival, Fianna Fail, paved the way for one of the greatest economic crises of our history, with their reckless over-spending and failure to properly regulate the banking sector.
Thus, voters are confronted with a rather bleak political landscape: Our two largest parties are not only tantalizingly close in their declared philosophy and values; they also both bear a large share of responsibility for our country’s recent history of squandered taxpayer’s money and governmental incompetence. Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Because there is currently no party large enough to seriously challenge the FF-FG dynasty, whatever coalition ends up forming the next government will almost certainly – barring a very dramatic upset – be led by either FF or FG.
So it looks like we will be stuck with another five to seven years of governance headed up either by (a) a party that drove Ireland’s economy into the ground through reckless overspending (FF), or (b) a party that has failed to avert disastrous mismanagement of our health service, and done too little, too late, to mitigate our housing crisis (FG).
What Ireland desperately needs, and what most voters want, is not more of the same near-indistinguishable ideas and policies of FF and FG, but a real change of government.
The question is, where, among the available electoral options, might one find the potential for real change? How might we finally put behind us this depressing cycle of governmental incompetence and mismanagement? How might we break out of this wearisome game of political musical chairs?
Unfortunately, given the competitive advantage established parties enjoy in elections, especially parties with well oiled and well financed party machines, it is unlikely that this particular election will bring a radical change of direction for the country.
Nevertheless, voters should not simply resign themselves to perpetuating the FF-FG dynasty. They may play the long game, and do their part to promote a more diverse and competitive political landscape.
Even if FF and FG remain dominant players after this election – which they almost certainly will – citizens nevertheless have it within their power to gradually break the near monopoly of these two parties over our political system, by giving their first-preference votes to either independent candidates or new and emerging parties.
Sometimes the contribution of independents is disparaged as disruptive or destabilizing. It is suggested, for instance, that they are “wild cards” who wield disproportionate influence over legislation and policy, especially when they hold the balance of power in a hung Dáil.
But the existence of independents and smaller parties is precisely what ensures that the large parties cannot ram through their agendas unchecked by external critics. Furthermore, it is precisely the disruptive effects of “wild cards” – be they independents or small parties – that is needed to ensure that neither FF nor FG enter government with a blank check to consolidate a political legacy that is, to put it kindly, rather uninspiring.
Voting for independents and parties beyond the pale of the political Establishment would represent more than just a symbolic gesture. For in the most likely post-election scenario in which no single party can govern alone, both independents and small parties will potentially have significant political leverage in the formation of the next government.
Therefore, in the current political climate, giving one’s first preference vote to independents or new and emerging parties – assuming, of course, that one can relate to their core values and policy commitments – may be an intelligent strategy for gradually breaking the grip of Ireland’s two Civil War parties over Irish politics, and opening up the prospect of constructive, far-reaching political change.
To those who would steer clear of independents or new parties out of fear of “rocking the boat” or introducing political uncertainty, I would suggest that this is not precisely the time for keeping Ireland on its current trajectory and re-electing the “devil you know.”
Of course, if things were going reasonably well in Ireland and our existing political leadership was competent, reliable, and effective, it might make sense to re-elect candidates with a proven track record, rather than taking a risk on new candidates and fledgling parties.
But given the abysmal legacy of our two dominant parties, there is a strong case for taking a gamble on something quite different, and less familiar. After all, sometimes the devil you know is actually worse than the devil you don’t.
David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. Twitter: @davidjthunder.