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Voter anger creating political limbo in austerity-hit Europe

Elections in Spain, Portugal and now Ireland have rocked established politics as voters rebelled against austerity and traditional parties, creating political limbo by holding up the formation of new governments.

“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 parties, which had slashed public spending and raised taxes in a gruelling austerity programme required by an international bailout deal.

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: the two main parties which have long-held divisions.

In Spain, the vote on December 20 produced a parliament with 200 new members out of 350, but no left no party able to form a government as support for two new parties, the left-wing Podemos and centre-left Ciudadanos eroded the standing of traditional forces.

Polling suggests Spanish voters would cast their ballots in a similar way in case of a re-run.

“One might think that this ungovernability would have an impact and people would return to the classic bipartisan system but no,” said Jose Pablo Ferrandiz, deputy head of the Metroscopia polling institute.

– ‘Protracted political uncertainty’ –

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.

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 are yet to feel the benefit of the growing economy and continue 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 impress.

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.

– Historic moment –

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 said.

“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.”