Crucial Irish Vote in Busted Economy Could Bring Major Change

BY Michael D. Mosettig  February 25, 2011 at 9:55 AM EST


Irish opposition leader Enda Kenny (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, Irish voters have a chance to punish the government so many of them blame for the country’s massive economic woes. And they are expected to do so with a vengeance.

For most of Ireland’s history of independence, the ruling party has been the Fianna Fail, and its prime ministers (Taoiseach) were happy to take credit for the two decades of economic and property booms that gave it the nickname “Celtic Tiger.” But the boom has gone bust in a big way. Half-built property developments stand abandoned. The banks that provided that easy money to the developers are being bailed out by the government. The government is being bailed out by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. A country that needed and was attracting immigrant labor from Central and Eastern Europe is once again seeing emigration to England, Canada and Australia.

For Europe, the election will be a test of whether governments accepting EU bailouts can survive politically, and what happens if they cannot. (Greece’s ruling Socialist government is holding on politically, while struggling to meet bailout conditions for raising revenue and cutting expenditures). The likely winner of the election, Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny, has talked of trying to re-negotiate terms for the 80 billion euro bailout. Whether the EU, especially Germany and France, would agree is another question; they could also impose counter-terms such as demanding Ireland raise its low tax rates on businesses.

The real excitement when the vote counting starts Saturday morning will be whether a third party, Labor, which is to the left of the two major parties, will work its way into a coalition with Kenny’s Fine Gael. Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein Irish nationalist party is also expected to gain seats in the parliament (Dail Eireann). What seems to be not at all in doubt is that Fianna Fail will take the worst drubbing in its history.

Whatever the outcome, the heated media campaign has been a boon for Irish journalists and bloggers, and for the country’s famed black humor. As one blogger, Cormac MacConnell, wrote, “…it is almost worth suffering a recession and the fall of a government (Prime Minister Brian Cowen was forced to resign) to be surrounded by such feverish excitement and oral electricity.” The blogger noted that it is a campaign almost exclusively conducted on television because politicians are not a popular species these days.

MacConnell described a recent Irish TV historical documentary recounting that the Romans never invaded Ireland because they heard it was inhabited by cannibals.

“That was never truer than this week. By Sunday at the latest, allowing recounts, we will have devoured enough politicians to fill a hundred big iron pots! We are lighting the bonfires now….”

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