This week’s general election in the Irish Republic, due to take place on Friday, could turn out to be one of the most important in decades. There are two reasons. The first is that opinion polls are often the intriguing possibility that for the first time since 1977, Fianna Fail has the chance to win enough seats to form a single-party government. Not since Jack Lynch led Fianna Fail to a landslide victory a quarter of the century ago has the party that was once considered the “natural” governing party of the state been in a position to fulfill that self-proclaimed destiny.
The second reason why this week’s electoral showdown is attracting more than the usual amount of comment is, of course, the growing prominence on the Irish electoral scene of Sinn Fein. It is putting more effort into this election than any it has fought in the Irish Republic for about 70 years.
Fianna Fail’s fortunes are being buoyed by a series of opinion polls, one of which has the party winning 51 percent of the vote. Others show it hovering around the 45. This is a vast improvement on what the party achieved in 1997, when it had only 37 percent of the vote, which earned it 77 seats. It is generally agreed that 84 seats is the minimum needed to win an overall majority in the 166-seat Dail. However, due to the vagaries of the transferable vote system, it is difficult to translate percentages into numbers of seats. Potentially, clever vote-management could, for example, turn a 45 percent share into a majority.
Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern is being low key about his chances for an overall majority, and not just because he fears making his supporters so complacent that they fail to show up at the booths. He is also aware of the recent polls that show that 65% percent of Irish voters prefer to trust a coalition government than single-party rule. Clearly, Ahern does not want to say anything that might spook Irish voters into supporting other, smaller parties.
Sinn Fein is also keeping mum about its expectations. Again, polls are looking good, as far as its hopes are concerned at making a breakthrough after years in the Irish political wilderness. But as the voters got ready to go to the polls, they were giving Sinn Fein around 6 percent of the vote. Party leaders are saying they hope for three seats. Secretly, they believe they have a chance at scoring at least four and perhaps one, or even two, more.