Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald reacts after the announcement of voting results in a count centre, during Ireland's national election, in Dublin, Ireland, February 9 2020. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald reacts after the announcement of voting results in a count centre, during Ireland's national election, in Dublin, Ireland, February 9 2020. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE

Dublin —  Ireland’s election is hanging in the balance after a surge in Sinn Féin’s support upended the nation’s traditional two-party power structure, and attention began to turn to government formation.

Counting began on Sunday, after an exit poll showed a virtual dead heat between Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael as well as the biggest opposition party, Fianna Fail, and Sinn Féin.

On Sunday, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin predicted his party would win the most seats, a position which would leave him in prime position to lead a coalition.

There’s “significant incompatibility” between his party and Sinn Féin, Martin said, although accepting an “obligation” to find a functioning government.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin speaks after the announcement of voting results in a count centre, during Ireland's national election, in Cork, Ireland, February 9 2020. Picture: REUTERS/HENRY NICHOLLS
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin speaks after the announcement of voting results in a count centre, during Ireland's national election, in Cork, Ireland, February 9 2020. Picture: REUTERS/HENRY NICHOLLS

The former political wing of the IRA presented itself as a left-wing alternative to the centrist consensus which has largely dominated government since the foundation of the state in the 1920s. While that drove a surge in its support, Varadkar continued to rule out a deal with Sinn Féin.

“It’s astonishing Fine Gael and Fianna Fail want to wish us away,” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said in an interview with broadcaster RTE. “People want decent government, working people want a party leading government that stands up for regular citizens.”

The election represents a “seismic” shift in Irish politics, McDonald said, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail facing an unprecedented threat to their stranglehold on power.

The electoral math of a system shattered by its rise means Sinn Féin is unlikely to lead the next government, but its surge speaks to the shifting tectonic plates that are upending traditional power structures across Europe.

Compromise needed

In a sign of the party’s strength, its candidate topped Varadkar to take the first seat in his district, though the Irish leader was expected to be elected later on Sunday. 

“The exit poll suggests a great degree of fragmentation, which will make government formation very difficult,” according to Eoin O’Malley, a politics professor at Dublin City University. “There’ll have to be significant compromise, and rowing back from election commitments, or else Ireland will be voting again this year.”

While early tallies suggest Sinn Féin could even be the biggest party by vote share, that won’t necessarily translate into seats in the country’s 160-strong parliament.

Early on Sunday afternoon, O’Malley projected Fianna Fail to win 42 seats, Fine Gael 38 and Sinn Féin 37.

Varadkar’s Fine Gael won 22.4% of votes in Saturday’s election, according to the exit poll, confounding surveys that placed the party in third place before the vote.

Sinn Féin won 22.3%, according to the Ipsos/MRBI poll of 5,000 voters, putting it line for its best-ever performance.

In the 2016 election, the party won 14% of the vote.Though Sinn Féin is in the race to be the biggest party by vote share, it didn’t run nearly enough candidates to become the dominant force in parliament. Fianna Fail, which oversaw the nation’s international bailout in 2010, secured 22.2% in the poll, which has a margin of error of 1.3 percentage points.

It’s clear no party will come close to a majority, meaning Varadkar and Martin will have to seek out coalition partners. The traditional divide in Irish politics runs between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, separated by little except where they stood on the division of Ireland in 1921.

Both share Brexit policies, broadly agree on economic and fiscal policy and vow to protect the nation’s 12.5% corporate tax rate.

‘Too wide’

The policy gap with Sinn Féin is “too wide” to form a coalition, enterprise minister Heather Humphreys said on Sunday. While Sinn Féin’s main historical mission has been to reunite the two parts of the island of Ireland, it has morphed into a broader left of centre party, with a particular focus on housing.

A Fine Gael or Fianna Fail-led government “would largely mean continuity from a financial and economic policy perspective”, said Bert Colijn, an economist with ING Groep NV. “Sinn Féin’s proposed policies would represent a significant move to the left.”

Bloomberg