Is a second election the answer to Government formation stalemate?

Emerging from lockdown with a recession on the horizon, what options do the political parties have?

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The first 100 days is traditionally the point at which a new government gets its first provisional review and points to achievements to show it has hit the ground running.

Last Monday marked 100 days since the General Election and we do not even have a new Government to judge yet. This has not really registered with a public focused on the pandemic but that will change in the coming weeks as the caretaker Government runs out of road and cannot get certain measures passed.

Despite only being in the early stages of talks, we have already had the first spat with FF taking umbrage at news that Minister Eoghan Murphy had ordered his Department to engage in contingency planning for elections that may take place during the Covid-19 pandemic. What does this row tell us?

On a general level, this is welcome news, representing sensible planning on the part of the Department as a referendum, by-election or, yes even a General Election may have to be held during what is likely to be a lengthy period of restrictions. It also reflects a department thinking ahead rather than wallowing in the crisis.

While the row has been described by some as a manufactured storm in a teacup, it does give some insight into the present mentality within both parties. FF it is clear is terrified of the prospect of an election anytime soon and is making little effort to hide it.

'There is a reluctance within FF and FG to risk diluting their separate identities'

FG, it has long been clear is a party that spends a considerable amount of time awake at night, or at least many of its TDs do as they lie there thinking up (depending on the mood ) opportunities, forthcoming calamities, and various strategies, many of which wind their way into the pages of national newspapers. The party is currently buoyed by strong opinion poll ratings and some dare to think about going to the country to capitalise on them.

The talks with FF and the Green Party have however resumed and all three insist they are committed to bringing them to a successful conclusion.

FF/FG/GP – a 50/50 chance?

Normally when two or three parties commit to this phase of government formation it ends with a government being formed. There are however a number of obstacles to overcome on this occasion, each of them difficult, if surmountable, but, taken as a whole, the prospects of success are only, at best, 50/50 in Insider’s view.

First of all, the obvious ones. The reluctance of FF and FG to risk diluting their separate identities. The Greens also need to extract a good deal but how likely are green issues to be centre stage in the teeth of an economic and health crisis?

'Many Independents say they are keen to get involved either formally or through support from Opposition'

There are however other obstacles. Contrary to the normal state of affairs, there is genuine reluctance and concern in the bigger parties about making concessions to the smaller party. FG is concerned that some green policies will not go down well in provincial Ireland where the party has lost significant ground, notably in Munster in recent years. FF has similar concerns, even if overridden by an eagerness to get back into government. If the talks ultimately fail, what are the alternatives?

FF/FG/Independents

Insider is a little surprised this option has not got more airing. FF and FG are eight seats short of a majority. There are however 20 Independents TDs in the Dáil, of which, 15/16 of them have previously been members of, or could have been members of, or look like they should have been members of FF/FG. In short they are very much of the ‘gene pool’ variety.

Many of these Independents say they are keen to get involved (indeed a number of them are likely to join a FF/FG/Green coalition ), either formally or through support from Opposition, and Insider suspects some of those who would not partake in Government, would be likely to abstain in key votes.

Therefore, this combination is likely to be a viable route to providing the State with a government in the short-term. The concern the two parties have is that it won’t last beyond the first few years as the scale of the damage done by Covid-19 and the measures to remedy it become apparent. FG, in particular, has no interest in going into government if it does not have a strong prospect of lasting four years.

A coalition with Sinn Féin?

It would be a mistake to say there is a clamour within FF and SF to form a coalition. There are, however, those who think talks should at least be held. To most people this would probably be a natural alliance and would see 20 years of on/off speculation about such a coalition happening finally come to pass.

The common refrain is that under Micheál Martin FF will not do it. This misses the point that there is a larger obstacle – numbers. While FF and SF are two seats closer to a majority than FF/FG, they would find it difficult to attract sufficient Independent support as the FG-leaning independents would be less likely to sign up. Insider suspects a FF/SF alliance would just about attract enough numbers to get across the line initially but would be unlikely to last long. As such, this looks a non-runner.

'Considering FF, FG, and SF are nervous about participating in coalitions where the majority is ‘not big enough’ they are hardly going to want to chance a minority government'

This one gets talked up a little by commentators but Insider would be flabbergasted if this survived its first contact with reality. FF and SF are probably the two parties that, culturally and policy-wise, are least compatible with the Greens – have a look at where Senator Pauline O’Reilly’s votes went, or more to the point did not go when she was eliminated in February’s General Election. A coalition with either would be challenging, but to go into one where FF and SF are in cahoots would be a step too far.

There is no A in TLA

Another prospect is that, if the Greens are unwilling, another member of the ‘Triple Left Alliance’ could step in to get a FF/FG or, less likely a FF/SF alliance across the line. The Social Democrats, or more particularly perhaps co-leader Róisín Shortall, clearly have no interest in going into government so this leaves Labour.

Labour has been invisible for the last four years but has sprung back into view in recent weeks with some combative Dáil performances from new leader Alan Kelly, and the man he defeated, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. The journey back for Labour is however a long one and the hill to be climbed is steep. The party, therefore, is inclined to rebuild in opposition, despite seeming to leave a small window open last week when it ruled out government ‘at this time’ and said it wanted to see how the FF/FG/Green talks progress.

'FG’s poll numbers are artificially high and are unlikely to be sustained through to the autumn as the economic fallout becomes apparent and people emerge from the bubble of the lockdown'

A broader issue here is that the TLA are all competing with each other and watching their own backs. Far from being an alliance, they are rivals nervous of each other – there is no A in TLA! Not alone does this make it difficult for any of them to join a government in the coming weeks, it also makes it questionable if they are plausible coalition partners after a second election.

Minority government or grand coalition?

Take your pick of minority coalitions led by any of FF, FG or SF. Considering these parties are nervous about participating in coalitions where the majority is ‘not big enough’ they are hardly going to want to chance a minority government in the present circumstances.

So, is it beyond the bounds of possibility that the three biggest parties could coalesce? As one source close to SF told Insider recently, people might be surprised at how much they would agree on. However, FG would hardly agree to this and would see it as an opportunity for themselves to go into Opposition to a FF/SF coalition. Which, as we noted above probably will not have the numbers.

A second election?

This takes us back to Minister Murphy’s contingency planning. Back to the people. And here is where Insider thinks Leo Varadkaar needs to have nerves of steel if he is going to chance it – he needs to go for it, not in the autumn, but in the next few weeks.

From a purely tactical perspective, FG’s poll numbers are artificially high and are unlikely to be sustained through to the autumn as the economic fallout becomes apparent and people emerge from the bubble of the lockdown.

'As we have seen in Spain and Israel, a second election can be as inconclusive as the first'

Secondly, being cynical about it, an election held when there are restrictions on public movement would result in more of an air war than a ground war, something that is likely to hinder Independents. Thirdly, again being cynical, would FG prefer an election campaign where people are ‘distracted’ by Covid-19 and therefore face less questions on health, housing and the economy?

A big risk of course is that FG will be accused of political opportunism and even endangering public health. However, most of the places where canvassing teams tend to gather – churches, pubs, shopping centres, and transport hubs – are closed until mid-summer as are schools, which would function as polling stations. Would a June election be a bigger threat to public health than one in October? Also, can the State commit to another four months of stalemate before we even get to the polls?

Another huge risk however is that, as we have seen in Spain and Israel, a second election can be as inconclusive as the first. Insider does not see much hope of a second election in Ireland being conclusive either, in fact government formation could be even more difficult.

As such, with parties facing such an unappetising menu of choices for government formation, and the sheer difficulty around the timing of any second election, most likely from some combination of FF, FG, Greens, and Independents will be formed but the stalemate we are in is significant and may take some time to get out of.

 

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