While the media focused on the massacre of the conservative Fianna Fail Party in the recent Irish elections, the real story may be the earthquake on the Left, particularly the success of the new kids on the block, the United Left Alliance (ULA).
In terms of total seats, the big winners in the Feb. 26 vote were the conservative Fine Gael Party that went from 51 to 76 seats, and the Labor party that jumped from 20 to 37 seats. But Sinn Fein more than doubled its seats in the Irish parliament, or Dial, from 6 to 15, and the ULA picked up five seats. For the first time in Irish history, the Left-Labor, Sinn Fein and the ULA-hold a majority of the seats in the country's largest city, Dublin.
The backdrop for the election was the catastrophic collapse of the Irish housing market, and the subsequent cratering of the economy. Ireland went from "Celtic Tiger" to a European basket case and a jobless rate of 13 percent. Fianna Fail's policies of privatization, dismantling economic checks and balances, and encouraging on-the-margins speculation were largely responsible for the economic implosion, and the voters punished them for it. The party that had dominated Irish politics for more than 80 years went from 77 to 19 seats, the worst defeat in its history.
Most observers expect Fine Gael and Labor to form a coalition that would give them a working majority in the 166-seat Dial, although it may not be a comfortable alliance. Fine Gael's politics are not all that different than Fianna Fail, although Fine Gael's leader and presumably new Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, has pledged to try and renegotiate the terms of the $117 billion International Monetary Fund/European Bank (IMF/EB) bailout. The bailouts requires Ireland to cut more than $20 billion from its budget over the next four years, raise taxes on working people, cut social services, and accept a usurious interest rate of 5.8 percent.
The Labor Party has made noises about forcing some of bank bondholders who profited from the speculation binge to pay some of the costs, although European banks are deeply opposed to that. Much will depend on what Kenny can get German Chancellor Angela Merkel to agree to, which most likely means a cut in the interest rate. Even the conservative Irish Business and Employers Confederation are pressing to cut the interest rate.
But pushing the interest rates down is hardly a challenge to the premise behind the bailout: that Ireland's working people should pay for the speculation binge, an orgy of profit making that they did not partake in.
However, a solid block on the Left could push the debate in the direction of reevaluating that premise, and maybe move Labor in a more left direction. There are some 15 other "independent" voters that might also be lured into a coalition to challenge the bailout, although the ideological range among those independents leans more toward the center- right.
Sinn Fein says it opposes the current bailout, and cuts in social services, but hedges its bets when it talks about who its potential allies might be. The party is socialist in orientation and is closely associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It can take a good deal of credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and those laurels certainly helped it in the Feb. 25 election. But the Irish Republican News of Feb. 26 reports, "Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has left open the possibility of supporting a minority Fine Gael government."
If Labor goes into a government with Fine Gael, the resulting coalition would have over 100 votes in the Dial, which is hardly a "minority" government. The remark, then, suggests that Adams is launching a trial balloon: a Fine Gael/ Sinn Fein coalition that would hold a narrow majority in the Dial.
Such an alliance would not sit well with the ULA, whose program explicitly rules out "any coalition with right wing parties.particularly Fianna Fail and Fine Gael." Indeed, the ULA says, "We aim to provide a real alternative to the establishment parties as well as Labor and Sinn Fein." The three parties in the ULA coalition that put deputies in the Dial are the People Before Profit Alliance, the Socialist Party, and the Workers & Unemployed Action Group.
Newly elected UAL Dial member Joe Higgins, a member of the Socialist Party, said that the coalition's block "will work as a coherent, principled opposition," adding, "there is a need for a new party on the left for working people." The UAL is not a party yet, but according to Higgins the coalition is discussing how to make that come about.
The ULA has a six-point program that includes:
· Dumping the IMF/EB deal and ending "the bailout of the banks and developers."
· A progressive tax system that "taxes the greedy not the needy."
· A social development program to build up the country's infrastructure and create "hundreds of thousands of jobs."
· Reversing the cuts to social services and the privatization of health care.
· Ending discrimination bases on gender, race, nationality, age, disability or sexual orientation. The coalition supports gay marriage.
· Protecting the environment.
The ULA also says it wants to form a network of similarly minded parties across Europe, "to fight the attacks on workers, the unemployed and the poor and to fight for a new vision of society."
Ireland faces rough sledding in the months ahead, though it will hardly be alone. Portugal's economy is almost as bad, and the IMF and the European Bank is starting to draw up a similar set of draconian bailout policies for Lisbon. If the Irish can come up with a strategy to resist shifting the financial crisis onto the backs of those least able to pay for it, that might be a blueprint for other countries ravaged by debt and economic malaise.
The elections made it clear that the Irish want a change, and the Left has an opportunity to develop "a new vision of society." Now that would get Irish eyes to smile.
[Read Conn Hallinan at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.