ELEVEN days to polling day. Elev-en days to what are arguably the most significant local and Euro elections in the history of the state. Eleven days until, as now seems inevitable, Fianna Fáil is relegated into second place for the first time in over three quarters of a century. Whatever the outcome, the reverberations will be felt long past 5 June. But just how big will those reverberations be? When the votes are counted on the local, Euro and by-elections, will it prompt a move against Brian Cowen? Will Enda Kenny finally silence those who doubted he could ever be Taoiseach? Will the Greens be forced to rethink their continued participation in government? Will Labour claims to be a realistic alternative to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael be borne out?
Scenario 1 The Fianna Fáil Doomsday scenario
Just how bad can it get for Fianna Fáil on Friday week? Potentially, very bad indeed. If the Fianna Fáil vote does not improve on the recent disastrous polls, then the party would be facing a loss of its Dublin European seat and losses on the local councils of 70 seats or more – unthinkable territory given it lost 80 seats five years ago. On that level of the vote, the party would also be facing humiliation in both Dublin Central and Dublin South. If that happens – and it should be stressed that for now that remains a big if – then the spotlight will fall firmly on Brian Cowen's leadership of the party. Whether that translates into a successful heave against Cowen is a moot point, but it would be inevitable that a lot of the private dissatisfaction felt against the Taoiseach would come out into the open. A move could be made by some TDs to replace Cowen as leader of Fianna Fáil, although it does seem difficult to see how another taoiseach could come to office without being elected by the general public. To do it once – as in the case of Cowen taking over from Bertie Ahern – is acceptable in the course of a Dáil, twice might be stretching matters.
Fianna Fáil deputies would not relish the prospect of a general election, but the possibility of a small number of backbench TDs deciding that a politically opportune time to vote against the government may boost their own chances of re-election cannot be entirely discounted.
An election result such as the one outlined above would not automatically mean Cowen's time as leader of Fianna Fáil and Taoiseach was up, but it would be very difficult to see the government continuing beyond the end of the year in its current form, given that level of unpopularity and the hugely difficult decisions it will have to take in the upcoming estimates and budgetary process.
Likelihood: Very possible but not necessarily probable. Fianna Fáil will win three European seats, but Dublin looks like a 50-50 call at this point. At 21%, Fianna Fáil would certainly be facing meltdown on county councils. But there is confidence in the party that the party tally will be somewhere in the mid-to-high 20s.
Scenario 2 The Fianna Fáil performance is not as bad as expected. Cowen's leadership is secure
There are grounds for limited optimism for Fianna Fáil. The result will be bad – being overtaken by Fine Gael would have seemed unthinkable even eight or nine months ago – but expectations are now so low, it mightn't be as bad as the party fears. Nobody expects a sitting government to do well in a by-election, but in Europe there is a decent chance that the party will end up with four seats – which could turn out to be the same as Fine Gael's final tally. Eoin Ryan is up against it, but in a straight fight between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, one would have to fancy Fianna Fáil, even allowing for the party's unprecedented unpopularity. If Ryan can sneak home, then Cowen can credibly claim the election campaign was a success. Particularly if Fianna Fáil can keep losses in the locals to below 50 seats. That is possible. The party is seriously under pressure in urban areas, but its presence on the country's city councils was decimated in 2004, so there may not be much further to drop. In rural areas, the track record of sitting councillors may keep the wolves from the door. There were signs last week of Cowen's form from the 2007 general election, when he played a huge role in turning around Fianna Fáil's fortunes. If he keeps the fire in the belly, and keeps hammering home his point that there is no alternative to the tough measures, then Fianna Fáil may well end up in the mid-to-high 20s, instead of 21%. If Cowen was then to go and win the Lisbon referendum in the autumn, it might just give the government the required momentum to get through the really tough budget. If Cowen and his cabinet colleagues can hang in there until this time next year – a very big if – it is just possible that the improvement in the economy will begin to be felt and there may be some uplift in their fortunes.
Likelihood: Not as improbable as you might think. The key is the Dublin contest. Whatever about the government's longer term survival prospects, if Fianna Fáil holds its four seats in Europe, Cowen is safe.
Scenario 3 The greens have a disastrous election; strains grow in the coalition
There is a worry within Fianna Fáil that the real problem for the government could come, not from Fianna Fáil backbenchers, but from a Green Party concerned about its long-term survival. The Greens have been rock solid coalition partners through some very, very difficult times, but at a core vote of 3%, the party is in the same territory as the PDs before their demise. Does the party run the risk of electoral oblivion if it continues to stay with a hugely unpopular government? Or could it opt to pick a matter of principle on which to exit government and hope it gets the gratitude of the electorate for doing so? The Greens won't win any seats in the Euro elections; won't come close to winning in either by-election and is under pressure to hold its council seats. It currently has 17 city and county councillors. If that drops to below 10, then alarms bells will begin ringing.
Likelihood: Unlikely... for now. The Greens have held their collective nerve until now and, renegotiations of the programme for government aside, are unlikely to stray from their line that they are in government for the long haul to introduce the Green agenda. But, with politically horrendous decisions to come (third-level fees, property tax, taxing child benefit, among others), the pressure could become unbearable.
Scenario 4 the gilmore gale causes tensions with, and within, fine gael
Fine Gael is flying high right now. It's high in the polls and the George Lee coup has energised the party. It will win in Dublin South but, fine candidate not withstanding, Dublin Central is a very big ask. The fact that the party hierarchy has set the bar so low for the local elections – 300 seats, a tiny gain from 2004 – means it is hoping there will be a real wow factor if the party gets well in excess of that. The party is also likely to lose one seat in the Euro elections following Avril Doyle's decision not to stand in the East constituency. In contrast, Labour could gain two seats in the European elections and over 40 seats in the locals and a possible gain in the Dublin Central by-election. Tensions between the two opposition parties are already pretty fraught. Fine Gael believes Labour is being overly populist in its approach. Expect those tensions to multiply if it looks as though Labour's populist approach is going down particularly well with the electorate. This could present Fianna Fáil and the Greens with an opportunity to exploit divisions among the proposed alternative government.
Likelihood: It's hard to see anything stopping the Fine Gael bandwagon right now, but stranger things have happened.
the greens will stay in govt no matter how bad the result of the election is. paul gogarty will pontificate and wrestle with his conscience in public but in the end will come to the decision that his interests are best served by remaining wed to ff no matter what.