Rage against the Political Machine Election Will Herald a New Era in Ireland

When the Irish vote in the country's general election on Friday, they will be keen to punish those politicians they see as responsible for the country's sorry state. But the hands of the next government will be tied by the European Union, whose multi-billion bailout gives it power over the nation's fate.

By in London


Desperate times call for desperate measures. For Michéal Martin, the leader of the conservative Irish political party Fianna Fáil, the only option left is to appeal to his countrymen. Anger, he said recently, is a poor basis for voting decisions. But his cry for help is likely to fall on deaf ears. The Irish are voting in parliamentary elections on Friday, and Martin knows it will be a day of reckoning for his party.

Fianna Fáil, which has been in power for 14 years, is about to get its comeuppance, due to the widespread perception that it is responsible for the country's worst crisis in decades. Ireland's 5 million people are deeply ashamed of the fact that, 90 years after the republic's independence, the country is once again under foreign control, this time in the form of the experts from the European Union and International Monetary Fund who have been overseeing Dublin's economic and financial policies since November.

The man who is the main target of the people's anger will not actually be standing for election, however. Brian Cowen, who was responsible for government policy for years as finance minister and then prime minister, resigned as party leader one month ago. His successor Michéal Martin, a former Irish foreign minister, now has to take the rap.

Turning Point for Ireland

Friday's parliamentary election will be remembered as a turning point in the country's history. At first glance, it does not seem like such a major change. After all, the expected result will see one conservative party taking over power from another. Fine Gael has a 20 percent lead in the polls, and its leader Enda Kenny is expected to be the new prime minister.

In terms of policies, the party is very similar to Fianna Fail, and the choice of 59-year-old Kenny as prime minister would hardly be a symbol of radical change that would correspond to the revolutionary mood in Ireland. A primary school teacher by training, Kenny has been a member of the Irish parliament for 30 years and as such is part of the political generation that plunged the country into crisis.

Nevertheless, the election will see a political revolution of historic proportions. The electoral tsunami will not only sweep away Fianna Fail -- the dominant political force in Ireland for decades -- which is currently at a humiliating 15 percent in the polls. There is also a revolt against the multi-party system itself. Never before have so many candidates who are not members of a political party had the chance to move into the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish parliament. Together, they constitute the third-strongest political force after Fine Gael and the center-left Labour Party.

Even if Fine Gael fails to win an absolute majority, Kenny could still form a single-party government with the support of a number of independent delegates. The new parliament is likely to include a record number of fresh faces -- an expression of the general desire for change.

Rebelling against the Foreigners

But a shift to the left, which many observers had been predicting, now seems unlikely. The Irish seem to trust the conservative Enda Kenny more than the Labour Party and the left-wing Sinn Féin, both of whom have been calling for less drastic austerity measures. That fact should reassure other EU states, which expect Ireland to consolidate its state finances.

There is one issue, however, where Kenny will rebel against the foreign experts. He wants to renegotiate the €85 billion ($120 billion) rescue package from the EU and IMF. The emergency loans saved Ireland from a national default in November, but right from the start the Irish were unhappy about the high interest rate of 6 percent. Reducing that rate by even a single percentage point would reduce the country's debt by billions.

During the election campaign, Kenny had already visited Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to promote his idea. Should he be elected, he will raise the issue at the next EU summit in late March.

Fine Gael also announced in its election manifesto that it wants private creditors to share the losses of Irish banks. Many economists consider this to be a necessary step if Ireland is to escape its debt spiral. But the European Central Bank and the EU partner countries are strongly opposed to such a move -- they fear a loss of investor confidence that could spread to other EU countries.

Political commentators do not believe that Fine Gael would go this far. The Irish Times columnist Vincent Browne criticized their election promise as "not credible". He said that the new government will not undertake a restructuring of Irish debt "because the ECB will instruct them not to do so."

No Turning Point in Economic Policy

The EU can expect to see the Irish bailout package back on the agenda, however. The election winner must at least raise the question of interest rates -- he owes this to his voters following this election campaign. And the new prime minister, whoever he is, must certainly reckon with further demands from Brussels.

Ireland's low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent will not remain a taboo subject in the ongoing discussion about a European economic government -- even if all the Irish political parties would like to keep it that way. They have outdone each other during the election campaign in their attempts to reassure people that they would defend their sacred corporate tax rate from Brussels.

If he is elected, Kenny has declared that his number one goal will be the restoration of Ireland's international reputation. The country must be able to market itself again as one of the best business locations in the world, he said -- and the corporate tax rate is a central argument in that respect.

As such, the election hardly represents a turning point in economic policy: It will simply be the continuation of a debate that has been running for months. The general situation has not changed -- the country still has a shrinking economy, debt mountain, austerity measures and high unemployment -- and a recipe for success is still missing.

'Getting Depressing'

The lack of prospects is leading to increasing number of Irish leaving the country, up to a thousand a week. Last week an Internet site was created, called Ireland's Lost Wall, where Irish emigrants could immortalize themselves and post the reason why they left the country. "Ireland was getting depressing," wrote Catherine Graham, who now lives in Boston, US. "It's sad when your own mother knows and says you're better off away from home," wrote Helen McKenna, who moved to New Zealand in 2009. This virtual wailing wall is a gruesome testimony to the crisis.

What is perhaps even worse is that the Irish who remain in their homeland are no more optimistic. And the election result won't change that. One thing is certain, says Irish Times columnist Browne ominously: "This next government will run into crisis after crisis over the next year."


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