LEINSTER, IRELAND – Lawmakers from Ireland’s two main parties gathered Thursday to discuss their options after the final results from last week’s election showed a fragmented political landscape, with no clear winner.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s outgoing coalition lost its parliamentary majority as voters made clear their anger over continued austerity in the eurozone country, despite a return to economic growth.
His Fine Gael party won 50 of the 158 seats, while its coalition partner Labour won seven, just ahead of the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit group which took six seats.
By contrast Fine Gael’s traditional rival Fianna Fail won 44 seats, while Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA in Northern Ireland, which campaigned against budget cuts, came in with 23.
Analysts say the most obvious option would be some kind of alliance between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, both centrist parties who would have a comfortable majority between them.
But they have long been rivals, tracing their origins back to opposing sides in Ireland’s civil war in the 1920s, and long-standing grievances will hamper any coalition talks.
“We are heading into a high stakes poker game now,” said David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin.
“A grand coalition of the two main parties would be the best result — but will there be long term agreement, and how long will the situation last until we have another election?”
Parliament is due to reconvene on March 10 and, in theory, appoint a prime minister. Still, it is highly likely that there will be no agreement by then.
“The current government will stay on as caretaker until a new government will be found. The problem here is that it leads to long periods of insecurity,” Farrell said.
Kenny gathered his Fine Gael lawmakers together on Thursday to “formulate a set of principles that will guide party participation in a future government.”
In comments made after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, he said the election result was “disappointing.”
But he said: “We are determined to play our part in providing the Irish people with a government committed to working on their behalf.”
Micheal Martin’s Fianna Fail party also gathered its new lawmakers together for the first time, where the mood was upbeat five years after they were punished at the ballot box.
One option for an alliance could be a minority government led by Kenny and supported by Fianna Fail, who would remain in opposition but would support the government on key issues.
Alternatively there could be a formal coalition of the two parties, but that would mean bridging a political divide that has existed since the foundation of Ireland in 1922.
Former prime minister Bertie Ahern has predicted there is “not a chance in hell” of a deal before Easter, at the end of March.
“It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to be long,” Ahern told RTE radio as the results became clear at the weekend.
“It’s a new game, there’s no obvious combination that can work this out.”
Kenny had campaigned on a platform of maintaining a recovery that has seen Ireland become the fastest-growing economy in the European Union.
But many voters complained that they had yet to feel the benefits and continued to suffer from years of tax rises and spending cuts imposed after a financial crash and international bailout.
The swing to anti-establishment and anti-austerity parties echoed recent elections in other eurozone countries like Spain and Portugal, which also led to political deadlock.
In Spain, talks to form a government are still ongoing after a vote in December. And in Portugal, October elections resulted in an unstable minority Socialist government.
Turnout in the Irish vote was 65.1 percent, lower than the 70 percent in the previous 2011 election, which came after a banking crisis and bailout that precipitated the fall of a Fianna Fail government.