From the upcoming EU referendum to the spectacle that is the US Presidential election, it is clear that 2016 will be a busy time for politics enthusiasts. But when looking back on the year, we might come to conclude that one of the most significant and defining elections has already taken place.
The result of the 2016 general election produced a dramatic shake-up in Ireland’s political landscape. The Fine Gael party of current Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, suffered a setback, finishing only narrowly ahead of the resurgent Fianna Fáil. The Labour Party, junior coalition partners in the Government, lost 26 of its 33 seats.
Despite a growing electoral base, Sinn Féin remains far removed from Government. What we have been left with is an inconclusive result, one that has left Irish politics fragmented. But it was not meant to be this way. After experiencing an economic recovery and receiving backing from Angela Merkel and David Cameron, many predicted Kenny would be the first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected Prime Minister for a successive term.
But as the 2015 UK general election proved so decisively, politics can be treacherous waters for seemingly informed predictions. What we got instead was an election with no obvious winners, and what many have described as a rejection of the traditional parties by a socially changing Irish electorate. The facts seem to agree, with the combined first preference vote of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael below 50 per cent for the first time.
To put this in perspective, during the last prolonged recession in the 1980s, the two parties averaged more than 70 per cent of the vote. As with any landmark election, we must look beyond borders to find the wider implications. In this respect, the Irish example not only provides a useful comparison to the UK, but offers insight ahead of the upcoming EU referendum vote.
The clearest message was sent to Kenny, whose slogan ‘Keep the recovery going’ gained little traction with the electorate. Kenny modelled his campaign on the successful Conservative strategy of 2015, even adopting the same ‘long-term economic plan’ electoral mantra. However, where David Cameron was able to convey a message of economic prudence, Fine Gael misjudged the mood of the public.
Fine Gael’s failure to win decisively, despite Ireland’s economic upturn, will send shivers down the spines of European governments soon to face uneasy electorates. It also continues the trend of EU centre-right parties faring poorly at the polls, as we have seen in Greece, Portugal and Spain.
It may also affect the Brexit debate. The Irish Government has estimated that trade with the UK will fall by at least 20 per cent in the event of Brexit. However, ‘leave’ campaigners may look to the current uncertainty in Ireland and conclude that EU economic policies have been a key driver of political instability.
The wider impacts from Ireland are still emerging, but for the Irish people there is no obvious end to political uncertainty in sight.
Stephen Day is COO and MD of Public Affairs at Burson-Marsteller UK