Ireland is set for what could be months of coalition negotiations and quite possibly another election before the year is out. This is after Sinn Féin surged to first place in Saturday’s general election while Leo Varadkar’s ruling Fine Gael slumped to third, with a slew of ministers losing their seats. (You can follow the counts as they come in here.)
Varadkar’s great misfortune was that with Brexit resolved, the Irish electorate’s focus instead turned to domestic issues, particularly housing. That Sinn Féin has long been regarded by much of the political establishment as an unacceptable coalition partner due to its association with the IRA meant it was the party least associated with the perceived failures of the recent past, particularly by young voters.
It’s a remarkable reversal of fortunes; Sinn Féin was doing so badly in by-elections and local elections that it opted to run just 42 candidates in anticipation of an electoral humbling. That means that it will be denied the first place it would have earned had it run a large slate of candidates – instead, Fianna Fáil will finish first as far as the number of seats is concerned. This makes a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin the most likely outcome but, with many rounds of Ireland’s STV system still to play out, that result isn’t certain.
What is certain is that there will be a desire within Sinn Féin to have a second crack at an election, this time with a larger slate of candidates – but there is also a desire on the part of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to find a way to avoid that.
While it is Fine Gael that will go down to defeat after two terms in office, Fianna Fáil has the greatest reason to be uneasy. While both those two parties are heavily dependent on the votes of the old, Fianna Fáil came third among younger voters. And Ireland is a young country. While Fianna Fáil will, thanks to Sinn Féin’s decision to stand so few candidates, regain its historic hold on first place, it may well be the last time it does so.