16 May 2009

Musical Chairs

Ahhhh, the sweet smell of intrigue, innuendo, skullduggery, desperation, and defiance in the face of utter doom is once more in the air. Yes, my friends, the political season is most definitely upon us once more, the posters have been attached to every available lamppost (already we have had the first serious mishap of the season), the candidates are pressing the flesh on the doorstep and not even the unreasonably inclement weather can dampen their enthusiasm.

In fact just about the only thing that could dampen a prospective politico's spirits would be the release of an Irish Times TNS/MRBI poll. What's that Lassie? The Irish Times has in fact just released a TNS/MRBI poll? The Green party are stuck down a well and can't get out? Quick, run and fetch help.

While the paper itself focuses on the fact that Fianna Fail, while being slaughtered in national opinion polls, have a coterie of very popular MEP candidates who look likely to retain their seats, I am more interested in what has happened just beyond the reach of the front runners.

In Dublin, which has lost a seat due to the reshuffling of MEP distribution in the EU following the last round of member state accession, a tight contest was always promised as four sitting MEPs fight over three seats in the redefined constituency. The Times focuses on the big four, predicting a return for Fine Gael's Gay Mitchel (26%), Labour's Proinsias De Rossa (21%) with the last seat being a particularly nasty fight between the two other sitting MEPs, Fianna Fail's Eoin Ryan (11%) and Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald (14%). While McDonald has a higher share of 1st preferences, Ryan should get in on the basis of second preference transfers from his partymate Eibhlin Byrne (5%). The biggest news for me, however, has been the arrival of Patricia McKenna into the mix last week as an independent candidate, and is now polling at 8%, higher than the official Green Party candidate Senator Deirdre De Burca, who is trailing at 6%.

Support for the Greens is currently at about 3% nationally, and yet in Dublin the two Green politicians are polling together a combined 14% of the first preference vote, a very positive result. I have met Senator De Burca a number of times and found her to be an intelligent, driven and very capable politician, but as she is closely in step with the Green leadership and onboard with the current Green program for government, it is unlikely that she will pick up too many votes outside of core Green supporters. On the other hand McKenna is a firebrand that alienates as many as she motivates, and her current polling numbers need to be taken with a pinch of salt due to the high profile media coverage of her resignation from the party in the days immediately proceeding this poll. However the fact that she is polling higher than the official Green candidate must be attributed to disaffection over the direction the party is taking within the core Green vote as much as to her own previous record as an MEP and her loyal personal following.

It is also interesting to speculate what might have happened if the Greens had run McKenna as its official candidate, with a plausible 1st preference tally of 14%, combined with possible transfers from De Rossa and the Socialist Party's Joe Higgins (7%) that the left-leaning McKenna could have picked up, but that De Burca is unlikely to get. Picking up the last Dublin seat would still have been a long shot, but they would have looked good to finish a close fourth behind Eoin Ryan as opposed to a probable (and very disappointing) sixth or even seventh.

So the good news is that the green vote is still there in Dublin and people remain pretty passionate about green issues even in these gloomy economic times. The bad news is that folks are very, very unhappy with the actions of the government, and the Green Party is going to suffer as a consequence. A disastrous result for the Government parties in these elections will put even more pressure on Biffo to call a national election, as will pressure from within Fianna Fail itself to walk away from the whole mess and leave the further difficult decisions that must be made in the next budget up to the other guys to enforce. The question is will the Greens be able to do enough in the intervening months to go the the nation with a record of success from their time in Government.

A tall order indeed given the punishment that looks set to be meted out to them for entering into coalition in the first place.

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