Ireland, Portugal, Spain: austerity anger undermines old politics
Elections in Spain, Portugal and now Ireland have rocked established politics in recent months as voters in the eurozone countries rebelled against austerity and traditional parties.
“There is a common pattern to many of these, which is that the established party systems are under threat,” said Professor David Farrell, political scientist at University College Dublin.
“There’s no doubt that one immediate cause is the ongoing experience of austerity and its impact on the wider citizenry.”
In Ireland, voters punished the outgoing coalition government of the centre-right Fine Gael and Labour Party, which had slashed public spending and raised taxes in a gruelling austerity programme required by an international bailout deal.
Voters also flocked to independent politicians, anti-austerity groups and small parties, in a trend that reflects widespread disillusionment with established parties and a move towards outsider.
Reduced overall support for traditional parties meant the vote produced no clear winner, leaving Ireland facing a re-run or an unprecedented deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail: two established parties with long-held divisions but the only ones with the seats to form a majority government.
In Spain, the vote on December 20 produced a parliament with 200 new members out of 350 but unable to form a government as two new parties, the left-wing Podemos and centre-left Ciudadanos eroded support for traditional forces.
In neighbouring Portugal, the Left Bloc made a historic breakthrough in parliamentary elections in October to take 10.2 percent of votes in an election that resulted in an unstable minority Socialist government supported by the Left Bloc and other parties.
“It was a surprise. The Left Bloc has managed to capture the voice of the young electorate on the left and right who are unhappy with the austerity policies of the last four years,” political scientist Jose Antonio Passos Palmeira told AFP.
– Historic moment –
The common thread to all three countries, which have suffered the brunt of economic crisis, is a reaction to unpopular austerity measures imposed by international institutions in exchange for loans from the International Monetary Fund and European institutions.
In Ireland, a return to strong economic growth that saw it become the fastest-growing economy in the eurozone was not enough to convince voters to back the government which had imposed austerity.
Many complained they had yet to feel the benefit of a growing economy and continued to suffer the effects of job insecurity, lower wages, higher taxes and the aftermath of swingeing cuts to public spending.
A plea by the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition to return them to office or risk scuppering the recovery with political instability failed to wash.
Following the vote, the Fitch Ratings agency warned that “protracted political uncertainty, an unstable government, or reliance on more radical political elements” could be negative for Ireland’s outlook.
Jean-Michel de Waele, professor at the Universite libre de Bruxelles, said the countries might have to come around to the idea of forming coalitions between traditionally opposing political forces, something more common in Scandinavian countries.
“Undoubtedly this is a historic moment,” de Waele.
“I think we are heading for deep political uncertainty. We see this in Spain: Spain may have to vote again, and we will see how long the Portuguese government lasts.”
Farrell called the result in Ireland a “wake-up call for the established parties”.
“There’s a decline in voter turnout that might suggest that our electorates are becoming turned off of politics, but in all sorts of other ways we can see our citizens being more turned on,” Farrell said.
“They protest more, they express themselves through social media, they get involved in international charities or worry about the world economy,” he added.
“All of this speaks to a citizenry that is more engaged and the job for the elected politicians is to try to find ways of engaging with that in a new way.”