Fianna Fáil: headed for a kicking, but how hard?

I’ve been following the grim collapse of the Irish political system with awed fascination over the last few months, thanks to posts by , Slugger O’Toole and in particular the excellent Irish political reform blog, where Adrian Kavanagh has made a series of posts about the electoral maths. This has sparked my own thoughts about just how badly the main government party, Fianna Fáil, is going to lose; having been the biggest single party in every election since 1932, are now placing not second but third (after Fine Gael and Labour) in most opinion polls, with some hints that they could even drop to fourth place behind Sinn Féin.

This is apocalyptic stuff, but probably accurate. I think that FF will find it much more difficult to attract transfers from other parties’ voters in this election than they have previously. I remember the days of polarisation of the early 1980s, when there were pretty tight transfers between all other parties to keep Charlie Haughey out. The elections in 1981 and November 1982 were, incredibly, the last two occasions on which an FF government failed to get back in (all six subsequent elections have delivered an FF-led government, though one of them was replaced halfway through the Dail term). In those days FF were polling in the mid-40s, percentage-wise, rather than the mid-teens as now. In 1981, Charlie Haughey managed only 78 TDs out of 166 with 45.3% of the vote; in November 1982, he got only 75 TDs with 45.2% of the vote. Note that the ‘seat bonus’ which normally goes to the largest party almost disappeared in 1981 and was actually negative in November 1982. Adrian Kavanagh, I think quite correctly, predicts that FF’s percentage of seats is unlikely to match its percentage of the vote in 2011.

Even that may be optimistic. Looking at Kavanagh’s detailed figures, FF are teetering on the edge. There are only six constituencies out of 43 where Kavanagh expects FF candidates to get a full quota, if their national vote is 15-16% (Louth, Cork North West, Cork South Central, Dublin South, Carlow–Kilkenny, Limerick City, and Laois–Offaly – and that last depends on the party retaining the personal vote of outgoing Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who is not standing). But it is notable that the party is running more than one candidate in 23 of the other 37 constituencies, in other words two or three candidates will be scrapping it out for a vote share barely enough to elect one of them. That way lies disaster (look at the SDLP in West Tyrone in 2007).

My sometime co-author Noel Whelan has been saying recently that there is no floor below which Fianna Fáil’s support cannot fall. It’s worth noting that the 16% they are currently looking at in the polls is identical to the vote share gained by the Canadian Conservative government in the 1993 election there, where they won precisely two seats out of 308. Of course the proportional system means that 16% of the votes in Ireland still gets you, ideally, a sixth of the seats. But the threshold for annihilation is not a lot lower than 16% for a party like FF whose support is smeared fairly evenly across the country rather than with strong local pockets of support. (The other side of that coin is that it is more difficult for small parties like Labour and SF, who have depended on strong local pockets of support in previous elections, to break into the territory where their vote share matches their tally of seats, but to be honest I think we are looking at numbers for both parties where this won’t be a problem.)

Anyway, roll on 25 February, and the days of counting and recrimination which will follow.

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