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Column Political parties rarely become extinct - which is why Fianna Fáil is back in business

Voters tend to place more emphasis on current events than previous ones, so it’s no surprise Fianna Fáil has returned, writes Theresa Reidy.

FIANNA FÁIL HAS been making slow but steady progress in opinion polls in the last 12 months, prompting quiet satisfaction in some quarters, disbelief among others, and nothing short of horror in some of the more vocal corners of Twitter.

Individual opinion polls give us an impression of the political scene but a series of polls gives a much stronger and more reliable picture of the overall trend in party support.

Several polls have now put Fianna Fail on an upward trajectory. The really interesting poll was the latest Red C Sunday Business Post one, as it has been tracking party support on a monthly basis for some years now.

‘Fianna Fáil is a systemic party in our party system’

Fianna Fáil’s recovery is not unexpected but their return to the top position in some of the recent polls is perhaps a little surprising, especially coming so soon after its worst election result in history. But there are a variety of reasons why a resurgent Fianna Fáil should have been expected.

Political parties rarely become extinct. Political history tells us that although politics is an evolutionary process, systemic parties – once they are established – rarely disappear. Fianna Fáil is a systemic party in our party system. It has its origins in the foundation of the state and emerged at a time when the dynamics of political party competition were being established. As a consequence, it became embedded at the centre of political competition over the last ninety years. It is rare that these types of parties are wiped out.

During the 2011 election coverage, many pointed to the Christian Democrats in Italy and the Progressive Conservatives in Canada as examples of parties that have gone out of business. In the Canadian case, the party was undone by a deep recession and accompanying sharp rise in unemployment. The Italian example had more to do with the collapse of Communism in Europe and corruption scandals which bedevilled the party and its members, eventually leading to its disbandment.

What both of these stories do not tell us is that many former members of these parties are in parliament, and even in government, to this day. The parties reorganised, merged with other movements and have returned to power in both cases.

Lack of a friendly merger option

The Progressive Conservatives joined with the Canadian Alliance to become the Conservative Party of Canada. It was returned to power in 2006 and now has a majority government. The Christian Democrats fractured more widely but a significant group of former Christian Democrat personnel joined Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and went on to serve again in government. In both examples, it’s a case of the party is dead, long live the party.

Fianna Fáil has avoided a merger with another political movement possibly accounted for by its massive unpopularity and the lack of a friendly merger option. It was so unpopular for a time that no other party would have contemplated merging with it and there are few options in any case.

More importantly though, the depth of the economic recession has forced the government to implement deeply unpopular economic decisions with sharp budget cuts and tax rises, the order of the day. It continues to preside over a massive unemployment crisis. Research on Irish politics has shown for many decades that unemployment is the most salient issue for Irish voters. Consequently, it is not surprising that the government parties have seen their support levels shrink in the past months.

Voters are myopic

Now you may say that Fianna Fáil played a role in bringing about the worst recession in living memory and this is largely indisputable, but this brings us to another truism of politics – voters are generally myopic. This means that they place more emphasis on current events than previous ones. While Fianna Fáil may have been responsible for the economic mistakes of the past, the current government parties are bearing responsibility for the economic decisions of today. For voters, what happens in the present carries more weight.

In the absence of any new political parties, voters that temporarily drifted to Labour and Fine Gael have moved in a couple of directions; towards Fianna Fail, support for Independents continues to grow and, of course, several polls have told us that in the region of one third of voters remain undecided about their voting intention.

Again, the high number of undecided voters is not out of the ordinary. International evidence tells us that the number of voters that decide during an election campaign, and even in the days before polling, has grown considerably in recent decades. It is one of the reasons why there can be sharp movements in party support levels during a campaign.

The return of Fianna Fáil is not a surprise and the speed of their return probably tells us more about the innate conservatism and path dependent voting behaviour of Irish voters.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist at UCC.

Read: New opinion poll shows Fianna Fáil is Ireland’s most popular party>

Column: Amid rising popularity, Fianna Fáil may just be relevant again>

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