One reality seems clear after the February 8 general election in Ireland: no one party will have a majority and it will be days, maybe weeks or months, before the winner is known as party leaders seek to put together coalitions to reach and surpass the magic 80-seat number in the 160-seat Dáil.
In 2016, it took 63 days before the final shape of the Fine Gael/ Independent government was known.
Time was when Fianna Fáil would stride imperiously into an election, expecting an overall majority as their right, or Fine Gael would govern in coalition with the Labour Party but those days are gone.
In the 2020 election, neither of the two main parties is expected to much surpass 50 seats on their own, leaving them far short of the magic 81. The difference has to be made up of a coalition of partners.
Nowadays, there are more combinations of smaller parties and independents to the point where it is impossible to predict what the final combination will be. The bookmakers make Fianna Fáil the marginal favorites to be able to form the next government.
The combination most likely, they say, is a Fianna Fáil/Social Democrats/Labour/ Greens which is favorite at 5/1 with the same combination except replacing Fianna Fáil with Fine Gael at 6/1.
With both main parties ruling out a coalition with the third largest party Sinn Féin (though never say never when power is at stake), it is virtually impossible to predict what will happen. An alphabet soup of minor parties and independents further muddy the political landscape.
Fine Gael is going for a third term in office, for the first time ever. Indeed, their victory in 2016 was the only time the party had ever been re-elected so they are in completely unknown territory now.
The X factor is the Green Party, almost wiped out two elections ago because of their role as the minority government partner when the Fianna Fáil-led government almost collapsed the economy in the wake of the speculative boom and bust in housing and subsequent bank crash.
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Now sufficient time has passed and recent by-elections showed the Greens sharply on the rise again. They would likely hit the Fine Gael middle-class vote in Dublin hardest.
The battle of ideas will decide the election. Fianna Fáil will be honing in on the crisis in government housing and the perennial disasters in health care, specifically emergency room overcrowding and shortage of doctors.
Fine Gael will be pointing to the successful economy with unemployment at low record levels and their universally-praised handling of the Brexit crisis.
The debate or debates between the leaders could well decide. Neither is from the Irish backslapping school of politics. Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael can seem stiff and uneasy in public while Fianna Fáil’s Mícheál Martin is cool and detached. Both would be called policy wonks in American parlance.
So it is game on, with both sides starting essentially level in opinion polls. Like all close elections, it could turn on a blunder or some unseen issue that emerges.
It is all to play for.
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