Fianna Fáil has tended to present itself as a national movement, rather than a mere political party. Up until a few months ago its popularity among voters in the Republic of Ireland could be said to bolster that claim. Fianna Fáil has been part of government for most of the period since the party first came to power in 1932. But a string of recent polls suggest that Fianna Fáil’s vote will shrink from its usual 40% or so to below 20% in the upcoming 25 February general election. If it does, this will be one of the few exceptions to Lipset and Rokkan’s observation that social cleavages tend to fix voting preferences in European nations quite rigidly. Lipset and Rokkan say that these cleavages are based on class, religion, locality (centre-periphery) and farming vs industry – and argue that these bases may be slow to change, resulting in voting patterns that in turn change slowly.
But Fianna Fail was viewed by many voters as a party close to the very builders and developers who now needed rescue by the taxpayer. The party was also associated with a light regulatory touch for the financial sector whose banks were making recovery difficult for the country. Although it could be defended as facilitating recovery in the longer term, Fianna Fáil’s harsh budget in December 2010 did not help the party. To make matters worse, Fianna Fáil had a leader in Brian Cowan who in interviews seemed to find it difficult strike a chord with the public. In his regular Irish Times column, ex-Taoiseach and retired representative Garret FitzGerald (who headed two of the relatively few non-Fianna Fáil governments in 1981-2 and 1982-87) noted that “radical shifts in party allegiance (were) likely to favour (rival parties) Fine Gael and Labour”. Based on the polls, FitzGerald predicted 65 seats for his own party Fine Gael, and 45 and 41 for its principal rivals Labour and Fianna Fáil, respectively. Some commentators suggested that the “don’t knows” were embarrassed Fianna Fáil supporters who would vote for that party in the election, as it seems Conservative voters may have done in 1992. However, in a November 2010 by-election in Donegal South West the Fianna Fáil vote of just over 20% reflected the ongoing opinion polls.
In the same column, Garret FitzGerald discussed the problems of managing the vote so as to maximise a party's seats in Ireland’s multi-seat constituencies, given the big shifts in voting patterns. Parties must make a difficult decision as to how many candidates to put forward. Nominate too many candidates, and no individual candidate will get enough votes to achieve a seat. Nominate too few, and the party may fail to harvest votes from those whose locality or vocation do not match the candidates’ – e.g. a city candidate may fail to attract rural voters, so in a mixed urban-rural constituency the temptation could be to run an urban and a rural candidate. Ireland’s single transferable vote elections allow the voter to give ordered preferences for a number of candidates in the constituency, with votes being passed on to lower preferences as candidates are eliminated or elected.
If all voters’ preferences named a party’s candidates 1, 2, 3 etc. in order of preference then the more candidates a party put forward, the better it would be for the party. But in practice voters may well specify only a first preference, or they may switch parties after giving their first preference to a personal favourite. The political anoraks call this phenomenon “leakage” and the nomination strategy is much discussed by the general public, and is indeed explored in many papers in the literature. FitzGerald points out that Fianna Fáil and Labour have opposite problems. Fianna Fáil must persuade erstwhile successful candidates to step down so as not to “dilute” the party’s shrunken vote, and Labour must find a large number of credible new candidates to take advantage of the party’s large increase in popularity. With regard to his own party, FitzGerald adds “Fine Gael has a much lesser candidate problem because, having made a breakthrough in the 2007 general election, it needs a much smaller pool of new candidates than Labour does, and also because it seems to have been engaged longer than Labour in the process of building up this pool”. FitzGerald says that Labour’s probable difficulty in finding new candidates led him to increase his prediction for Fine Gail seats by five, and reduced his prediction for Labour by the same number.
Across the (figurative) floor, eminent lawyer, author, columnist and Fianna Fáil ally Noel Whelan predicts, also in the Irish Times, that whatever about the likely changes in the face of the Dáil (Irish elected assembly) one thing will not change: the proportion of female representatives. “Of the 166 members of my probable Dáil, only 16 would be female. The next Dáil will be a radically different one in every respect except gender” comments Whelan dryly.