iStock/omersukrugoksu(DUBLIN) — The left-wing nationalist party Sinn Féin surged to a historic result in the Irish general election over the weekend, upending the country’s two-party system as the wave of anti-establishment populism that has shaken up democracies around the world appeared to reach Ireland.
Sinn Féin, long associated with the nationalist terrorist group the Irish Republican Army or IRA, won the largest share of the popular vote in Saturday’s election, coming ahead of Ireland’s two major centrist parties that have traditionally divided power between them for a century.
With over 96% of ballots counted on Monday, Sinn Féin had 24.53% of the first preference votes, Fianna Fáil had 22.18% and Fine Gael had 20.86%.
The unprecedented result effectively transforms Ireland’s political system, with Sinn Féin now demanding it be allowed to take a role in forming the next government.
Irish newspapers described the results as “historic,” with the national paper The Irish Times calling it an “earthquake that reshapes Ireland’s political landscape.”
It seemed to be powered by the same dissatisfaction with traditional parties and economic inequality, particularly among young people, that has seen a growth in populist politics worldwide and in the United States.
“There is no longer a two-party system,” Sinn Féin’s leader Mary Lou McDonald told a jubilant crowd of supporters on Sunday.
Sinn Féin, however, may still be excluded from forming the next government, which must now be a coalition with no party winning enough seats to be a majority in the parliament’s 160-seat lower chamber, called the Dáil Éireann.
Sinn Féin, believing before the election it would suffer losses, only fielded half the 80 candidates it would need to form a government itself. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil ran more candidates and Fianna Fáil currently looks to have the largest number of seats. That means the two parties could theoretically keep Sinn Féin out of power.
Many observers though, including some members of both parties, have expressed doubts that is viable given the scale of Sinn Féin’s gains.
McDonald has said she is in talks with other small left-wing parties about forming a “government of change” that would exclude Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. That will be difficult and many believe her party’s best chance of getting into government is a coalition with Fianna Fáil.
Before the election, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had both ruled out a coalition with Sinn Féin. Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael’s leader who had been Ireland’s prime minister, said previously he would be open to forming a coalition with Fianna Fáil. Varadkar’s party had hoped for a third term.
Fianna Fáil’s leader, Micheál Martin, said a coalition with either Sinn Féin or Fine Gael would not be possible before Sunday’s vote.
But there are signs that Fianna Fáil is now softening its opposition. Martin on Sunday declined to rule out the possibility when asked by journalists.
“We’ll assess when the full count is in and the full number of seats are in,” he told the public broadcaster RTÉ. “I’m a Democrat, I listen to the people. I respect the decision of the people.”
McDonald said in an interview Monday that she wanted Sinn Féin to “be at the core and preferably leading the next government.” She reiterated her preference that it not involve Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, but said the most important thing was to avoid the two “buddying up” again to remain in power together as before the election.
She was also asked by journalists if she would be the next leader of Ireland.
“I may well be the next Taoiseach, yes,” she replied, according to The Irish Times.
Whatever the negotiations’ outcome, the results are a seismic change for Irish politics. For decades, Sinn Féin had been shunned by Irish voters over its ties to the IRA, which killed thousands in sectarian attacks in Northern Ireland between the late 1960s and 1990s. In this campaign, however, it largely put aside its nationalist agenda, including its push for a unified Ireland, instead focusing on social and economic problems.
The result was a surge powered by similar forces that have made Bernie Sanders a favorite contender for the U.S. Democratic Party’s presidential candidate this year and in Britain produced the leadership of the far left Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. Labour Party. The results reflected a frustration among voters, particularly young people, with a status quo they feel has failed to address squeezed living standards and failing public services even as the economy is booming. That frustration was driven in particular by anger over a lack of affordable housing, a severe homelessness problem and long hospital waiting times.
Sinn Féin campaigned on those issues, also pledging higher taxes on the wealthy and multinational corporations, many of which have their international headquarters in Dublin. Its results show the party is seen now less as a militant nationalist party than as a socialist party sensitive to the demands of a young electorate looking for a change.
The results will likely also have implications for the United Kingdom as it presses on with Brexit.
Northern Ireland has been a major sticking point in the U.K.’s efforts to leave the European Union amid fears it could reignite the conflict there. Under current plans, Northern Ireland will remain effectively part of the EU’s customs union, separate from the rest of the U.K. That alarms pro-British, largely Protestant unionists, who worry it could open a path to unification with Ireland.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland stipulates unification can only happen when a poll shows a majority on both sides of the border want it. Sinn Féin has previously pledged to seek a poll in the next five years and is now in a stronger position to demand it. The issue though barely featured in the election and polls in Northern Ireland have shown a majority still opposes unification.
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