By Michael Gallagher
In 2011, all the economic indicators had plummeted since the previous election in 2007, and it was no surprise that the government parties lost support heavily: their vote share declined by 29.7 percentage points and their seat total fell by 66 in a 166-member parliament.
In 2016, by contrast, all the economic indicators, as well as subjective measures such as optimism about the country’s and people’s own economic prospects, had risen significantly compared with 2011 (see post by Stephen Quinlan on politicalreform.ie). Yet the government parties’ vote share fell by 23.4 percentage points and they lost 57 seats compared with 2011. So, the puzzle is: why did the electorate punish the FG–Labour coalition almost as brutally as it punished the previous FF–Green–PD coalition despite the huge difference in these governments’ records?
Six possible explanations:
- An illusory or uneven recovery? The FG election slogan of ‘Let’s keep the recovery going’ was widely assessed as having been counter-productive. Those who had not felt any recovery were alienated by it (of course, such voters probably weren’t going to vote for FG anyway), and the perception that things were apparently getting better for other people made them feel even worse in relative terms. Perhaps many voters felt that such recovery as there had been was benefiting exclusively or mainly the better off, or those in major urban areas (the ‘two-tier recovery’ was a phrase often used), with the majority of the population unaffected; or that even if there had been a recovery it had started from an unnecessarily low point brought about by government decisions such as refusal to ‘burn the bondholders’? Certainly, according to the RTE exit poll, the number of people who felt that their own financial situation was improving (26%) was well below the proportion who felt that the country’s economic situation was getting better (46%).
- An ungrateful / unappreciative electorate? In this perception, the electorate punished the government for failing to meet unrealistic expectations. Maybe many voters still thought of pre-crash living standards as representing normality, unaware or unwilling to accept that these standards were the by-product of an unsustainable bubble, and stood ready to punish any government that did not rapidly reinstate the status quo ante by a combination of tax cuts and spending increases. Such voters are quick to blame the government of the day for anything that goes wrong but slow to give the government credit for any improvement, which instead will always be attributed to factors outside the government’s control. In this line of argument, dissatisfaction and rejection is likely to be the fate of virtually every government unless, like that of 2002–07 in particular, it funds additional spending from an unsustainable bubble of short-term revenue growth.
- A good record woefully sold? Maybe the problem lay not so much with the record as with the government parties’ ability to convince the electorate that it was doing a good job. Incidents such as ‘the McNulty affair’; the Minister for Finance’s campaign promise to abolish the USC, a significant source of revenue; the Taoiseach’s reference to ‘whingers’ who did not appreciate the great work done by the government; and FG’s claim that David Cameron was endorsing it; all suggest a misreading of the Irish electorate and produced an election campaign by FG in particular that is widely perceived as one of the worst in living memory. (For more details on these incidents, see the forthcoming How Ireland Voted 2016. The Labour campaign does not bear the same responsibility, because it appears that Labour’s goose was cooked long before the election campaign began.) If a government with what can be seen as a good economic record is rejected by the electorate, perhaps the fault lies not with the voters but in itself?
- Greater salience of factors other than the economy? Perhaps the public attached less importance to the economy than to issues such as the state of the health service, crime, abortion, homelessness, water charges, the introduction of the local property tax, cronyism, political reform, and punished the government for perceived poor performance on these? The RTE exit poll shows that ‘health services / hospitals’ shaded ‘management of the economy’ as the top issue in voters’ minds, though only narrowly (20% compared with 18%).
- Over-promising by the government parties in 2011? Had the government parties promised to bring about precisely what, in the event, happened, maybe the electorate would have evaluated their record positively. But FG and Labour while in opposition were very critical of the spending cuts and tax increases implemented by the FF-led government between 2008 and 2011 and gave the strong impression that these were unnecessary and would be reversed under their administration. Labour in particular was guilty of such over-promising, having undertaken not to raise university tuition fees and given voters to understand that it would defy any pressure from the ECB to follow policies of fiscal rectitude (‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way’). ‘Broken promises’ was an accusation frequently thrown against both government parties, Labour in particular. Perhaps the campaigns fought by FG and Labour in 2011, while bringing those parties short-term benefit, contained the seeds of their rejection in 2016?
- A return to political normality? Both FG and Labour, after their major gains in 2011, returned in 2016 to something not far from ‘normal’ levels of support by the standards of the previous thirty years or longer. Perhaps the 2011 levels of support they reached were an aberration brought about by the collapse of FF support and were never likely to endure? Maybe, just like the economic indicators in the summer of 2008, those political indicators in February 2011 represented an unsustainable bubble that was bound to be followed by a crash, and there is no great mystery about the 2016 result?