Countdown to local and European elections – five key considerations

Countdown to local and European elections – five key considerations

If the starter gun hadn’t already been fired in the contest for the forthcoming local and European elections, the sight of politicians peering from posters on poles from midnight last Wednesday heralded the 30-day countdown to polling day on May 24th. These contests will decide the outcome of 949 local authority council seats and the make-up of Ireland’s 13 representatives in the Strasbourg-based assembly for the next five years. The mix of both local and European electoral campaigns and the results from each will not only make for interesting analysis by political boffins but are likely to shape and inform the political landscape significantly in the months to come. While many areas will come under scrutiny, the following five are among the most noteworthy:

1. Referendum on Government’s performance and impact on timing of next General Election
The housing crisis, National Broadband Plan woes, massive overruns on the National Children’s Hospital have all been blots on the Government’s copybook but the extent to which they have caused damage to Fine Gael’s favour will be the first real test for Leo Varadkar’s leadership since taking over from Enda Kenny. Quite apart from deciding the makeup of local government and Ireland’s parliamentary representation in the EU it will, ultimately, influence the timing of the next General Election. Under the current ‘Confidence and Supply’ arrangement, the result will be watched closely – should Varadkar’s party perform well against Fianna Fáil it could increase his appetite to go to the country at the earliest opportunity. However, if the results favour Fianna Fáil it could precipitate the position of not being quite as “confident” in supplying support to the government with Michael Martin seizing his opportunity to choose a battle that would lead to a collapse of the government and the hope of positions reversing in a subsequent contest and in doing so propelling him to the helm at Government Buildings.

2. Fianna Fáil – conquer the capital?
Fianna Fáil’s performance in the capital’s local authority elections areas and European constituency will be closely watched as a bell weather of its potential to revitalise fortunes ahead of the next General Election in the ten Dublin constituencies. Back in 2011 the party held just one Dáil seat in the capital with the late Brian Lenihan and while that improved in 2016 with six returned, 40% of the city’s constituencies still do not have a Fianna Fáil TD. While the party became the largest in local government in the country overall in the 2014 local elections that success didn’t materialise in Dublin where it currently has fewer councillors than both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael as well as no Dublin-based MEP. Gains are a must both for its party and its leader.

3. Sinn Féin ability to transfer opinion polls to election day performance
In the run up to the last general election in February 2016, Sinn Féin had been polling as high as 21% in the month before the election, yet when votes were cast, support fell to 13.8%. Something similar happened in the 2014 local Elections where support was around 20% in the months before the country chose its councillors in a contest where Sinn Féin secured a lower level of support at 15.2% of votes cast.
This pattern continued in last year’s presidential election with the disastrous showing by the party’s candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, who was beaten into fourth place with 6.4% of first preference votes at a time when the party’s national opinion poll showing had been up to four times that in the preceding months. While presidential elections are not always solely decided along party lines a pattern does seem to be emerging of a disconnect between the support Sinn Féin garners in opinion polls versus actual elections. This begs a legitimate question; why can’t Sinn Féin convert opinions to actual votes?
Since January of this year the polls have been inconsistent, ranging from as low as 13% in Red C research to 21% with both Behaviour and Attitudes and Ipsos MRBI. With such a range there is no real baseline emerging but should the pattern of significant fall in support from the lower end of that opinion poll range happen as in 2014, 2016 and 2018 it could put the party’s progress into reverse.

4. More Labour pains or Labour gains?
At the last Local Elections outing Labour, under Eamon Gilmore, secured just 7.2% of the national vote, a sign of things to come where it lost 26 seats in the 2016 General Election yielding just 6.6% of support with Joan Burton at the helm. Since then support has eroded further and has been stuck on around 4% consistently for the past two years. The lack of yeast in poll numbers has led to dissent being displayed at grassroots which almost led to a leadership move against Brendan Howlin last year. Traditionally a transfer-friendly party, they will need to regain that status to stem the significant slide in support experienced over the past five years.

5. Role of Social Media in electoral success
Local and European elections have different dynamics – at its most basic the former is more rooted in local issues where candidates are more likely to know constituents while in the latter the size of constituencies makes that close association much more difficult making other factors play a larger role. Such different dynamics will influence social and digital media strategies undertaken in both campaigns and make for interesting analysis for media and political anoraks.
That said, the scramble for pole poster positioning on poles the length and breadth of the country last week shows that traditional methods of electioneering and candidate recognition are still seen as crucial.
Such traditional vote gathering methods have always been rooted in transparency where it was always clear who was behind each poster, pamphlet or press advertisement with clear guidelines set down. Such clarity and regulation in terms of who is behind political advertising on social media platforms is absent and creates a real risk of sinister interference, either domestic or international. One TD, Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless, has published a Private Members’ Bill to bring greater transparency to political advertising on social media but has yet to secure Government support for its introduction.

Niall Quinn is Deputy Managing Director and leads the Corporate and Financial PR advisory practice at The Reputations Agency. A qualified barrister, lecturer in Strategic Communications, Niall is also a former President of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland.

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