An Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny: Old enemies Fine Gael and Fianna Fail may come together in coalition.Oireachtas TV

While political watchers in the United States are now following the marathons that are the contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, Irish eyes are looking ahead to an early 2016 general election in which they will decide the composition of the next 158 member (down from the current 166) Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament). That the election will be held in February or March of next year was only confirmed recently, as the Fine Gael-led government publicly mooted having an election in late 2015.

Notwithstanding 1) the global narrative about an extraordinary Irish economic recovery, 2) the first budget in some years that did not include tax hikes (other than for cigarettes) and spending cuts and 3) frequent announcements of new jobs and positive statiseletical trends, the re-election of the Fine Gael/Labour Party coalition Government is far from a sure thing.

Recent opinion polls show Fine Gael’s support among the electorate hovering around the 25% mark, with Labour in the high single digits. On those figures, the political geographer Dr. Adrian Kavanagh of Maynooth University forecasts that Fine Gael will win 46 seats (down from 68) and that Labour will take just 9 (down from 33). While the latter numbers are on the low side of most estimates that pundits have made, it is very difficult at present to envisage a scenario in which the two parties win a majority of Dáil seats.

If there is anything to the “it’s the economy, stupid” winning political mantra, popularised by the Clinton/Gore campaign team in 1992, why aren’t Fine Gael and Labour coasting to a second term?

First, the unfortunate fact is that many people in Ireland still don’t feel the economic recovery. The recovery is most pronounced in Dublin – and in certain areas of Dublin, at that. Unemployment and emigration remain sad realities in rural Ireland. And a drive through some provincial towns will reveal lots of boarded up shop fronts and a dearth of activity.

Unemployment and emigration remain sad realities in rural Ireland.

Unemployment and emigration remain sad realities in rural Ireland.

Second, the cuts in spending and increases in taxes demanded by outsiders in the wake of the economic bailout and implemented by this government have enraged and alienated a substantial segment of the electorate. The Labour Party, which many believed would ensure that the most well off in society would bear more of the cost of the bailout, is the target of much of this anger. Large, rowdy protests, as well as increased support for politicians on the hard left, are evidence just how real the anger is.

To an extent that is certainly arguable. The blame for these two causes of the government’s political problems can’t be laid entirely at their feet. It is not ideal for any political party to assume power in a perhaps unprecedentedly difficult context and then to have to make unpalatable decisions. It was inevitable that Fine Gael and Labour would not emerge unscathed.

Yet at the same time, Fine Gael, in particular, has demonstrated a capacity for a lethal combination of arrogance and ham-fistedness that has made voters more cynical and sceptical at different points. When it came to power in 2011, Fine Gael touted the commencement of a “democratic revolution” and a new way of doing politics. In the end, they rammed legislation through the Dáil, ruthlessly expelled anyone who dared to disagree and were badly caught out when inartfully trying to fill a vacancy in Seanad Éireann (the upper house of Irish parliament).

Moreover, the introduction of residential water charges has been overshadowed by the disastrous rollout of Irish Water (the agency established to oversee water services) related contradictions and climb downs from government politicians and a consequent, ongoing widespread refusal to allow water meters to be installed and/or to pay for water.

That said, what will be the Government parties’ chief selling points in the upcoming campaign? How will the opposition parties and independents position themselves? What challenges will they all face in 2016?

“Stability vs. chaos” is the theme that Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Enda Kenny will repeat over and over from now until the day of the election. He and other Fine Gael candidates will point to improving economic conditions after a severe recession and ask voters: “Why would you rock the boat now?”

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Enda Kenny.

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Enda Kenny.

This is a powerful argument that will resonate with many in an electorate that remains innately conservative, especially when Fine Gael’s tenure in Government is juxtaposed with its long-time nemesis, Fianna Fáil’s, last term, when the bottom fell out of the economy. Even more provocative “bogeymen” are Sinn Féin, which remains anathema to a large segment of the electorate because of its past and alleged continued ties to the IRA, and the hard left independents whose political ideologies and personas are out of step with much of “middle Ireland.”

A vastly tougher task awaits Tánaiste (deputy Irish prime minister) Joan Burton and her Labour Party, which will undoubtedly drop a number of seats and which has lost considerable support to Sinn Féin and others on the left in working class areas and with people who are struggling.

Labour needs to convince voters that it used its position to fight for the interests of the less well off and achieved some successes – such as preventing even more swingeing cuts to social welfare rates – while those who have gained politically at their expense have the luxury of throwing stones from the sidelines.

Unconventionally, and cognizant of the reality that the party is going to lose seats regardless, Labour would be well-advised to remind specifically targeted voters of the role that it played in having a referendum on marriage equality held and the role that it wants to play in the repeal of the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution on abortion.

The conventional wisdom is that the Irish people vote on “bread and butter” economic issues in general elections and social issues should be downplayed. Subscribing to conventional wisdom in present circumstances, however, overlooks the realities that Labour needs every 1st preference vote its candidates can get from social liberals (particularly in affluent areas) and that the marriage equality movement has energised tens of thousands of new voters for whom social issues are an animating concern.

Fianna Fáil, the dominant force in Irish politics historically, was annihilated in the last election and now has just 21 seats in Dáil Éireann. While the party is capably led by Micheál Martin, whose pointed criticism of the Government’s political missteps and budgetary allocations have been well-received, and performed solidly in last year’s local elections, it seems to be mired at or around 20% in the polls.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.

Fianna Fáil has no TD (member of Dáil Éireann) in Dublin and no woman TD. Many people, urbanites especially, aren’t inclined to forgive the party for what they see as its woeful mismanagement of the economy.

On the flip side, it is likely that Fianna Fáil will gain seats outside of Dublin, in part because some of its long-time backers who abandoned them in the last election will return to the fold. Yet herein lies another difficulty for Fianna Fáil: how to renew and rebrand itself as a different, more liberal party, while simultaneously giving a voice to some of its most loyal followers.

The party’s chief strategists rightly believe that there is a long and winding road left to navigate and that the three main obstacles – convincing the electorate to forgive the recent past, creating a presence in Dublin and balancing the demands of “new faces” and “old hands” – require more time to vanquish. Still, 2016 definitely will be a better election year than 2011 was.

Sinn Féin, too, will improve upon its excellent showing in the last general election and should add approximately 10 Dáil seats to the 14 it already holds. TDs Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty are consistently good performers both in the Dáil and in the media, and have emerged as effective, trenchant critics of the austerity measures implemented by the Government.

Sinn Féin’s rapid ascent to become a major player in politics in the Republic of Ireland is remarkable and is due primarily not to its capable parliamentarians, but to the herculean efforts of scores of dedicated and indefatigable activists across the country.

Yet Sinn Féin’s leader, Gerry Adams, who inspires the party’s base on this island and its following in Irish America, is loathed by a not insignificant percentage of voters, who will forever associate him with IRA violence and its legacy. So long as he is leader, Sinn Féin will be a party in search of “respectability” in the 26 counties – something that Fine Gael and others will exploit. Sinn Féin also faces challenges from candidates on the hard left in working class constituencies and has a significant piece of work to do to boost the turnout of people who profess support for the party, but may be the least motivated to vote on election day.

Two new parties, Renua Ireland and the Social Democrats, emanated from the prevalent view – shared by their founders – that Irish people are tired of establishment politicians and yearn for something new. Economic and political reform and a more generalised desire for changes to society and to how society is governed are key objectives for both parties.

Renua Ireland comes at it from the right of the political center; the Social Democrats take a left of center, or social democratic, approach. Renua Ireland is led by the very talented and ambitious former Fine Gael Minister and TD, Lucinda Creighton; the Social Democrats are likewise well led by formerly independent TDs Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Róisin Shortall.

Renua leader former Fine Gael Minister and TD, Lucinda Creighton.

Renua leader former Fine Gael Minister and TD, Lucinda Creighton.

They are engaged in the arduous process of building political parties from scratch in a system that is less than receptive. Renua Ireland must vitiate the perception that it is a vehicle for those who zealously oppose abortion, given that its leading members were expelled from Fine Gael for opposing abortion legislation they argued was too liberal. And the Social Democrats are mining for votes in crowded territory on the left – which also includes the Green Party whose leader, Eamon Ryan, is hoping to recapture a seat in the Dáil.

Independents, in many ways, have been the story of Irish politics during the past few years. A record number won seats and independents and others currently have the support of nearly 30% of voters, according to the polls. While some have joined Renua Ireland or the Social Democrats, a hard left grouping comprising four TDs, called the People Before Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance, has been formed, as has an ideologically looser, slightly larger Independent Alliance.

Proven vote-getting TDs who are popular in their constituencies, such as Richard Boyd Barrett and Shane Ross, have organised these alliances. It seems likely that most serving members of these alliances will be re-elected to the Dáil – and some others they have recruited to run under their banners also have a real chance of winning seats.

Finally, there are a number of unaffiliated independents whose political ideologies, policy agendas and personalities vary quite significantly. Owing to the unwaveringly high standing of independents in poll after poll and to the fact that these independent TDs pride themselves on having their “ear to the ground” and on being hyper-responsive to the wide-ranging needs of their constituents, most of them will probably retain their seats. Dr. Kavanagh estimates that as many as 46 “independents and others” (including the new parties, the Green Party and alliances) will be elected to Dáil Éireann.

Well, in light of the foregoing, admittedly incomplete portrait of the complex state of political play, what will be the composition of the next Irish Government?

Fine Gael has stated on multiple occasions that its preference is for a second term in Government with the Labour party. Although there are some months to go until the general election takes place and the Irish people will feel the benefit of the first benign budget in years over the coming weeks and months, present poll numbers indicate that it is extremely unlikely that the two parties can form a majority Government on their own. Based on the analysis of Dr. Kavanagh and others, even on a fantastic day, they would need to add smaller parties and/or independents to their ranks in order to form a Government.

They certainly could seek to do so. Either of the new parties, for instance, might be happy to be in Government after its first general election. Many affiliated and unaffiliated independents certainly would go into Government, and would view it as an opportunity to bring influence to bear on policy and/or the specific needs of their constituents. But the crucial question is: how many TDs will Fine Gael need? The current polls suggest they will need a substantial number. And the more they need, the harder it gets to form a cohesive, sustainable entity.

Forming such an entity must be a priority for the Taoiseach whose re-election campaign theme is “stability vs. chaos.” This would seem to cast doubt on the feasibility of an unwieldy alliance with smaller parties and/or independents to make up the numbers. Those in opposition would use the manifest potential for the collapse of such a governing alliance to their advantage.

And if this Government were to collapse, the Taoiseach would have to do a lot of explaining to an electorate that had endorsed “stability” at his persistent urging. This would not be good for him or for Fine Gael.

The other course of action open to the Taoiseach would be to seek to form a new Government with the old enemy, Fianna Fáil (and maybe a smaller party or handful of independents, if needs be). Many of the Fine Gael and – even more resolutely – Fianna Fáil party faithful deny that it will ever transpire. Despite a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition being set as the odds on favourite outcome of the general election by bookmaker Paddy Power, it’s vociferously asserted that neither party’s membership would allow a coalition and/or that most party members would resign.

One prominent Fianna Fáiler privately expresses the view that a 2016 general election leading to a shaky Government that ultimately collapses could be just what Fianna Fáil needs. Albeit a cynical assessment, this is a scenario that is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Speculation aside, just about anything could happen in next year’s general election. That’s why I expect it to be a truly historic moment in Irish politics.

* Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a regular contributor to Irish media outlets on politics, current affairs and law.