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Monday, May 28, 2007

Luck of the Irish: PM Bertie Ahern Set for a Third Term in Office - or is he?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera: San Juan, Puerto Rico

Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern appears set for a third term in office, following a general election last May 24 in which Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), led by Ahern, remained by far the largest party in the Republic of Ireland, with 78 of 166 seats in Dáil Eireann, the House of Representatives. However, Fianna Fáil's coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, fared badly in the election, losing six of their eight Dáil seats - including that of party leader and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Michael McDowell - and the ruling coalition lost its overall parliamentary majority.

Although Fine Gael (Gaelic Nation) - the main opposition party - scored major gains and went from 31 to 51 seats in Dáil Eireann, its "rainbow alliance" partners, Labour and the Green Party failed to improve upon their previous election showing: the Labour Party lost one of its twenty-one seats, while the Greens won six seats, the same number as in 2002. In all, the three parties won 77 seats between themselves, whereas Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats hold a combined total of eighty.

Sinn Féin, which in recent years has become the second largest party in Northern Ireland (which remains part of the U.K.) and the largest party among that province's Catholic community, lost one of its five seats, while the small Socialist Party lost its single deputy. The Republic of Ireland has a long tradition of independent parliamentarians, and this year was no exception with five independents elected as deputies, but their number is considerably lower than in 2002, when thirteen non-party candidates won seats in Dáil Eireann.

Dáil elections are carried out by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, reviewed in Parliamentary Elections in Ireland - Elections to Dáil Eireann, where detailed results of last week's election are also available. STV is a proportional representation system, but the small size of the electoral constituencies (which elect from three to five deputies) usually favors the larger parties, especially Fianna Fáil. Moreover, parties that fail to attract a significant number of second preferences tend to do poorly under STV. This was the case with Sinn Féin, which won more votes than the Green Party but elected fewer deputies than the latter. (In addition, Sinn Féin's support tends to be concentrated in constituencies bordering Northern Ireland: many of these only have three seats, and even with a sizable vote transfer it can be fairly difficult to reach the resulting STV seat quota of 25%.)

At this juncture, it appears likely that Prime Minister Ahern will remain in office. According to press reports, Ahern is said to prefer a coalition with the Progressive Democrats and independent deputies; among the latter, two are former Fianna Fáil politicians, another is a former Fine Gael minister, and the remaining two are socialists. However, there has been speculation about a coalition between Fianna Fáil and the Green Party as a second choice. In the meantime, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny hasn't given up hope on forming a government...


Nearly three weeks after the election, Fianna Fáil reached a coalition agreement with both the Greens and the Progressive Democrats, under which Bertie Ahern was elected by the 30th Dáil as head of government for a historic third term on Thursday, June 14, 2007.