Counting nearly complete following Irish election.
Counting nearly complete following Irish election. | Morguefile

Horse trading begins after chaotic Irish election

Ireland's political landscape is upside down in the wake of last week's general election, which saw the election of a wide range of lawmakers, including socialists and some former Provisional IRA members.

The chaotic results of the five-week election cycle make it unclear who can lead the next government. With a relatively low 65-percent turnout, Irish voters elected lawmakers from seven different parties, as well as nearly two dozen independents.

The results leave no party in a position to form a government.

Ireland's political quagmire opens a window on a political process that would-be reformers in many countries would like to adopt: proportional representation. Under this system, seats in the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of Ireland's Oireachtas or parliament, are allocated in close to direct proportion to the number of votes cast.

Advocates in the United Kingdom and some U.S. states argue that proportional representation would produce fairer results than a winner-take-all election system. In Ireland, it has meant that few governments of a single party were formed in the nearly 100 years since Ireland gained its independence from Britain.

Coalitions have been put together fairly easily in the past, as either one of the two main parties — Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil — manages to partner with another party or two. The last government was led by Fine Gael, with Labour as the junior partner. 

This time around, nobody has a clear idea how a government will be formed. Fine Gael, though still Ireland's largest single party, lost heavily. Labour also lost heavily in a vote widely interpreted as rejecting austerity measures and deeply unpopular water charges.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has already been clear that no deal will be made with Sinn Féin, the one-time political wing of the Provisional IRA, which is now the third-largest party in the country.

There are also 23 independents, a diverse group that includes Teachta Dála (TD) or lower house members from right, left and center, as well as some TDs, whose political positions are tough to classify. 

A fresh election might be called, or something unprecedented might happen: A coalition between the two main parties that grew out of opposing sides in a vicious civil war that followed the country’s War of Independence.

Fine Gael, the "Tribe of the Irish," and Fianna Fáil, the "Soldiers of Destiny," have never contemplated forming a government together.

From a purely political perspective, however, the move could make sense. Both parties are essentially centrist, with members swinging a little right or left, depending on the political winds.

Both intend to continue working with the big American multinationals that are among the country’s major employers, providing these companies low tax rates and other favorable policies.

Kenny, in a statement late Tuesday, said he is open to talking “with other parties, groups and independent deputies to ensure that ... a government is established.”

An official later clarified that does not include any plans to partner with Sinn Féin, and it likely will not involve the reasonably large rump of socialist election winners.

Kenny said he hopes to form a government before the Irish leadership's annual St. Patrick's Day trek to the White House.