Snap Analysis: Mainstream parties on notice in Irish vote

By Padraic Halpin

STRANOLAR, Ireland (BestGrowthStock) – The rout of Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen’s candidate at a by-election for a vacant parliamentary seat is not just bad news for his Fianna Fail party but also for his mainstream rivals.

A runaway victory by Sinn Fein — known for its political campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland during decades of violence there — left the main Irish opposition parties Fine Gael and Labour polling below expectations.

Sinn Fein is now campaigning fiercely against austerity and an IMF/EU bailout in the Irish republic.

But analysts caution against drawing strong conclusions from Friday’s result in Donegal, a remote former Fianna Fail stronghold near the border with the north where Sinn Fein’s nationalist politics might have more appeal than elsewhere.

Fine Gael and Labour, which both accept the government’s overall austerity targets although they disagree with details of its plans, are still overwhelmingly likely to emerge as the next coalition partners in a general election early next year.

But they cannot be complacent and will need to fight for every vote, against the government, each other and Sinn Fein.

* Defeat for Fianna Fail cuts Cowen’s parliamentary majority to just two seats, held by independents who have said they could vote against his 2011 budget on December 7. The budget is still likely to pass, with the speaker of parliament able to cast a deciding vote in the event of a tie, and with Fine Gael seen as quietly prepared to abstain if necessary to save the IMF/EU bailout.

* Fianna Fail is on course for an historic rout in the full parliamentary election Cowen has promised to call early next year. The party, which has dominated Ireland almost since the foundation of the state 90 years ago, had held two seats in the Donegal South-West constituency and took 51 percent of the vote there last time out. Its candidate Brian O’Domhnail won just 21 percent of the vote this week. Such a poor showing in traditionally strong Fianna Fail territory backs up opinion polls that show the party losing more than half of its 73 lower-house seats countrywide. Deputy prime minister Mary Coughlan — also from Donegal — would probably survive, but she and a number of other ministers cannot be guaranteed to keep their seats.

* Sinn Fein’s victory increases its lower-house presence to five seats. The margin of victory in its first ever by-election win means it has a chance to emerge from the fringes of Irish politics next year into a more significant role. Sinn Fein could make further inroads into Fianna Fail’s vote and double its lower-house deputies to become the second largest opposition party next year.

* Fine Gael remains favorite to lead the next government, but capturing just 19 percent of first preference votes in Donegal is a disappointing outcome. While it managed to stay well ahead of Labour, its inability to challenge for the seat and profit from the government’s unpopularity will bring questions about the leadership of likely next prime minister Enda Kenny. * The result was also disappointing for Labour, which many had predicted would challenge Fine Gael for third place. With its leader Eamon Gilmore seen as a more credible future prime minister than Kenny, Labour is riding high in opinion polls and topped some this year for the first time. To turn this into seats, Labour needs victories in constituencies where it has barely competed before, and would have wanted a bigger jump than Friday’s rise from 3 percent support to 10 percent.

* Although junior government party, the Greens did not compete in the by-election, Friday’s large anti-government vote could confirm the worst fears of their six members of the lower house that they face a wipeout in elections early next year.

(Editing by Peter Graff/David Stamp)

Snap Analysis: Mainstream parties on notice in Irish vote