Under Irish law, the next general election must be held by April 9 at the latest. The current speculation is focused on February 25 or 26, but the ultimate decision rests with Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, and it is possible he has not made up his mind just yet. There is some talk that he might opt for a date in early March. But regardless of when the campaign officially begins, it is already under way in practice.
When the Dáil resumed after the summer break last year, there were indications that Fine Gael, the biggest of the two parties in the current coalition government, wanted to have the election in November but that Labour, the minority partner, would not go along with that. The Labour Party has been taking most of the blame for the tough economic decisions the Government made after it took office and there was a widespread view that it could be wiped out if the election was held at the end of last year.
But one of the problems with holding off until the spring of 2016 was the inevitable spell of bad weather over the Christmas-New Year period. The pattern has always been for the public to get into a grumpy mood as a result. The government of the day usually comes in for criticism over its real or imagined failures in tackling the problems arising from whatever combination of hail, rain or snow is visited upon the Irish people.
It happened again over recent weeks, when the weather has been at its worst for many years, with widespread flooding and a great deal of misery for ordinary citizens. The Taoiseach, who spends a lot of time getting his picture taken at various good-news events around the country, came in for sharp criticism for failing to turn up at any flood-disaster scenes outside his political home-base of Mayo. He rectified this at a very late stage when he visited the town of Athlone in the midlands, which has been hit by very serious flooding from the River Shannon.
While Kenny undoubtedly suffered some damage in political terms, by the time the election takes place the floods will surely have subsided and voters will have other issues on their minds such as taxation, the health service and the need to ensure that whoever gets elected doesn't make a mess of Ireland's hard-won economic recovery.
The Fine Gael leader has one major advantage in his efforts to lead the government that emerges when the votes are counted and the Dail re-assembles. Fianna Fail has so far ruled out a government partnership with anyone else while Sinn Fein passed a motion at its annual conference last year which specified that it would not go into coalition unless it was the majority party in that arrangement.
In the last general election in 2011, Fine Gael and Labour ran separate campaigns, but everyone knew there would be a marriage of convenience as soon as the votes were counted. Fianna Fail had presided over a major crisis in the Irish banking system and the economy generally. The party went into that election with 71 TDs and came back with only 20: it was a massacre. Fine Gael and Labour garnered a staggering 113 seats between them, out of a total Dail membership of 166. The exigencies of politics have since reduced the Fine Gael-Labour figure to 101 and nobody expects them to have anywhere near that total after this election.
For one thing, the overall number of TDs has been reduced from 166 to 158. Barring unforeseen circumstances, no party is going to have the 80 seats required to set up a government on its own. Coalition is again on the cards, but who will join together on this occasion?
A senior figure in Fine Gael told this writer that the party's objective was to win 60 Dail seats and that it expected Labour to return with about 12 TDs. This would mean recruiting the support of at least eight from the "Independents and Others" category to secure a majority.
Another option that has been floated is a coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. The two parties have their origins in the Irish Civil War and its aftermath. But there is little difference between them in broad policy terms and they would probably not have much difficulty agreeing a common platform for government.
As for Sinn Féin, the official line on coalition seems quite rigid but the party has a history of pragmatism and would not lightly turn down the prospect of government. There is a general expectation that Fianna Fail could win about 35 Dáil seats, up from the current 21, and that Sinn Féin might end up with 30 TDs compared with the present tally of 14.
That would still be 15 seats short of a majority for the two parties, but the gap could be filled by members of the "Independents and Others" group in the new Dáil. A mock advertisement produced by the Labour Party warned in humorous terms against a "same-sex marriage" between Gerry Adams and Micheál Martin, but even Labour might be tempted if things weren't going well in negotiations with Fine Gael.
When I asked a prominent member of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party if they would consider going into government with Sinn Fein, his response was emphatically negative and expressed in very colorful language. However, when I pressed him on a possible alliance with Fine Gael, he went into diplomatic mode, replying: "That question is above my pay-grade."
Since Fine Gael will almost certainly have more seats than Fianna Fail, going into coalition could mean that the smaller party would lose its identity and ultimately disappear like the Progressive Democrats. A coalition led by Kenny and Martin would mean Sinn Fein becoming the main opposition party and alternative government. But politicians tend to think in the short term and the lure of office is hard to resist.
* Deaglán de Bréadún is the author of "Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin", published by Merrion Press.