Shape of next Irish government still unclear

While it doesn’t compare to the turmoil in the Arab world, Ireland is having its own abrupt political turnover this weekend.  Although the broad outline of the results is clear, confirming a collapse in the vote of the hitherto natural party of government Fianna Fail, there is still significant uncertainty about the seat counts, which in turn will affect the calculations about forming the next government.

Bearing in mind the need to get to 83 seats for a majority, projections for Fine Gael still range from 72-78, with the latter end of the range increasing the temptation for the party to look around for alternative options to the presumed coalition with Labour, whose mid-30s seats will only go into government at a high price.  And both Fine Gael and Labour will note that their past coalitions have ended in defeat, allowing that this economic crisis is further along than ones that hit previous incarnations of this coalition (1973 and 1982).

Both parties will therefore want to wait to see how the final seat count shakes out before showing their cards, but the guidance from past elections on projecting the seat counts is very poor.  The new features coming into Ireland’s single transferable vote system this time are votes being transferred from defeated government incumbents and unusually high-polling independents, both of which lack clear precedents.  That means waiting for actual paper ballot counts (and recounts) which could take several days.

But the European tide won’t be waiting for that.  The new government faces an unpleasant March schedule including a crucial Eurozone summit on 11 March and bank resolution legislation that will be published on Monday which in turn is just one part of the vast unfinished business from the IMF/EU bailout.  Just one of the ironies is that while the outcome is fairly clear a call for political “reform”, the current structures and pressure of business aren’t going to allow much time for that.  Much like Egypt and Tunisia, impatience could set in quickly.