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Ireland Goes to the Polls on Saturday. Here’s Why the Stakes Are So High

11 minute read

For more than two years, Irish politicians have kept up a truce. As Ireland’s closest neighbor and second-largest trading partner stumbled through chaotic Brexit negotiations, opposition lawmakers agreed not to rock the boat, lending support to a fragile minority government led by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

But now, with the U.K. having formally left the E.U. on Jan. 31, the truce is over.

In December, Varadkar, 41, called national elections for Feb. 8 , hoping to win more seats in parliament for his center-right Fine Gael party by touting his strong leadership during the Brexit talks.

Irish voters, though, appear more concerned with a health care crisis and a severe housing shortage that have both worsened during Fine Gael’s nine years in government. The party has slumped in the polls and their main rivals, Fianna Fáil — also from the center but slightly more socially conservative and further to the left on the economy — appear likely to win power for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis, when Ireland’s over-exposure to the global downturn badly damaged trust in the party.

Together, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have dominated Irish politics since the country’s 1921 independence from Britain. The ideologically-similar establishment parties are divided less along policy lines than by historical conflicts, dating back to the civil war.

But this election looks set to be a breakthrough for a very different kind of political force. Sinn Féin — the Irish nationalist party that seeks reunification of the Republic of Ireland with the U.K. region of Northern Ireland — has surged, reaching joint first place with Fianna Fáil, on 24% of the vote according to one poll. Pushing a popular leftwing policy platform that appeals to young voters, it could become a powerful voice in parliament or even enter government. Here’s what to know about Ireland’s election.

When is the Irish election?

Irish voters will go to the polls on Saturday, Feb. 8. It will be the country’s first general election since February 2016.

Under Ireland’s unusual electoral system, voters choose a group of several lawmakers to represent their local area in parliament. Voters can specify their second and third choices, and so on, to allow votes to be transferred to remaining candidates until all the local spots are filled. Some say the system can encourage an electoral focus on local rather than national concerns.

What are the major issues at stake in the election?

Irish people are hoping the next government will be strong enough to resolve domestic issues that have been neglected during several years of Brexit, says David Farrell, head of University College Dublin’s politics school. “The policy outputs of this parliament have been far less than expected, and issues around Brexit are just not resonating with voters.”

Health care is the most important issue for 40% of voters, according to a January poll by the Irish Times. Ireland has a public health system, providing free medical care for low-income and elderly people. But 6 in 10 people still have to pay upfront fees for doctor visits and medicines in the public system. Around 40% of people opt to pay for private insurance schemes, instead. Public hospitals experience severe overcrowding, with hundreds of patients left waiting for treatment in corridors every day.

Ireland’s housing crisis was the priority for 32% of those polled. A shortage of homes has helped push average rents up sharply around the country in recent years – increasing by 5% in the year to November 2019 alone. In Dublin, rents have more than doubled since 2010. While wages have also gone up recently, hitting a high of 3.5% annual growth in the final quarter of 2019, many are finding it hard to afford to rent in urban areas and young people are struggling to buy their first homes. Homelessness reached record levels in October 2019, with 10,514 people living in emergency accommodation across the country according to government figures —more than four times as many as in 2014.

Who’s running in Ireland’s election?

Leo Varadkar – Fine Gael

Varadkar is Ireland’s youngest ever Taoiseach, the Irish term for prime minister. He was just 38 when he won a Fine Gael party leadership race to replace his predecessor Enda Kenny in 2017. As the country’s first openly gay prime minister and the first from an ethnic minority background (his father is Indian), Varadkar was viewed internationally as embodying Ireland’s transition to a more socially liberal era, and also as part of a new generation of modernizing, centrist leaders like Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

But many in Ireland say Varadkar is to the right of his party on economic issues. He faced criticism for a 2017 campaign asking Irish people to help root out “welfare cheats” who defraud the Irish social security system. The government later admitted it had stigmatized those who rely on the system. In the election campaign, Fine Gael has promised to lower income tax rates for the middle class, while also increasing spending on health and housing.

Varadkar is also trying to highlight his party’s competence — a major issue in a country where the two main parties share a lot of ideological ground, Farrell says. “Fine Gael is pushing how they’ve turned the economy round since the crash and brought back low levels of unemployment, and how they protected Ireland’s agenda during Brexit.” Varadkar fiercely defended Irish interests during Brexit negotiations, later accusing Britain of displaying “ignorance” about history with certain proposals. With the U.K. and the E.U. still negotiating their future trading relationship, Varadkar has warned voters Brexit is still only at “half-time”.

Micheál Martin – Fianna Fáil

Micheál Martin, 59, is the longstanding leader of Fianna Fáil, having held the role since 2011. That year, he led the party into a general election and experienced the worst defeat for a sitting government in the history of the Irish state, losing 51 of the party’s 71 seats. Fianna Fáil had been in power for a decade before the 2008 financial crash and voters blamed the party when Ireland suffered particularly badly in the global crisis, says Theresa Reidy, a political scientist at University College Cork. “The idea that it was a competent party of government that could be relied upon was crushed at that election. It’s taken the party nine years to try and recover some of that reputation, but it remains much diminished.”

Fianna Fáil has hoped to appeal to voter frustrations about Fine Gael’s handling of housing and healthcare crises. They have promised additional, better-targeted spending on health care to address the structural problems that generate long hospital waits. They also plan to build 100,000 homes in the affordable and public housing sectors and to double a tax on developers who “hoard” vacant land.

Mary Lou McDonald – Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin was for a long time seen as the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary organization that waged a campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, sparking violent conflict with Unionists who wanted the region to remain part of the U.K. But in the decades since The Troubles (as the conflict was known) officially ended in 1998, Sinn Féin has evolved into a more mainstream political voice and gradually built up support among the electorate in the Republic of Ireland. (The party also governs in Northern Ireland as part of a power-sharing agreement with Unionists.)

The party’s current leader, Mary Lou McDonald, 50, took over in 2018 and has been recognized as a skilled politician in the Irish press. She represents “generational change” in Sinn Féin’s leadership, Reidy says. “The people associated with the conflict and the IRA are no longer there.” While Sinn Féin is still demanding a referendum on reunification “by 2025,” the party has also developed a clear policy platform that appeals to its base of young working-class people. It promises a massive public housing program and the hiring of thousands of nurses and doctors. Sinn Féin’s unexpected proposal to reduce the state pension age from 66 to 65 – instead of a planned rise to 67 next year – has proved popular, leaving the other two parties scrambling over how to respond.

Sinn Féin has succeeded in drawing leftwing voters who might otherwise opt for the Labour Party, which it overtook as the third-largest party in 2016. Leftwing parties have historically struggled to break through in Ireland, partly due to the slow pace of industrialization in the country and the conflict over British rule, which many argue prevented the emergence of a strong trade union movement or class struggle in the twentieth century.

How has Ireland changed under Varadkar?

Varadkar’s time in office has produced few significant policy developments, with attention largely diverted towards Brexit and the minority government unable to push significant reforms through parliament.

What has changed in Ireland during the Varadkar years is the social landscape, with the conservative, majority-Catholic country continuing to shift toward more liberal social values. Ireland voted to legalize same-sex marriage in a 2015 referendum, and Varadkar called a 2018 vote on Ireland’s near-total ban on abortion, won in a landslide by those who wanted to repeal the law.

But those kinds of social issues are rarely on the table in general elections in Ireland, Reidy says. Abortion, gay marriage and divorce — which was legalized in 1995 — were all included in Ireland’s 1937 constitution, meaning they couldn’t be tackled without a referendum. As a result, those questions rarely stoke the political divisions — or culture wars — that they do in American politics. “Political parties let civil society organizations take the lead. There’s no advantage to parties really, in taking a strong position.”

Who’s likely to win?

There’s little doubt that the election result will force parties to negotiate a coalition government. Ireland, like other European countries, has experienced the fragmentation of its political landscape, particularly in the years since the 2008 financial crisis.

According to a January poll of polls by Irish broadcaster RTE, Fianna Fáil would take 50 of the 160 seats in the lower house of parliament, while Fine Gael would take 42 — thereby ending Varadkar’s time as prime minister –, and Sinn Féin would get 34. Sinn Féin has climbed even higher in later polls, though analysts say their vote share is sometimes overestimated because their base of working class young people tends to have a low turnout.

The Green Party is also expected to do well, with the RTE poll putting them on 9 seats – up from 2 in 2016, as concern about the climate crisis grows. A coalition between Fianna Fáil, The Greens and Labour (predicted to get 6 seats), along with smaller parties and independents, is a strong possibility — though it remains unclear if that could produce a majority. Martin has ruled out a grand coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, previously floated by Varadkar, arguing that “People want Fine Gael out of office.

If Sinn Féin entered government as part of the coalition, it would open the door to another, far more contentious political contest in the next few years, Farrell says. “I’d expect there to be a serious question about the border poll and the possibility of a referendum on a united Ireland in the lifetime of this government.”

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil say they will not enter a coalition with Sinn Féin, arguing that its lawmakers share decision-making power in the party with shadowy, unelected IRA-related figures. But Farrell says the parties would be under pressure to reconsider if Sinn Fein gets as many seats as the polls suggest. “It’s not surprising that they say they won’t do it. But parties are very promiscuous when it comes down to it.”

Correction, Feb. 6

The original version of this story misstated the size of Ireland’s trade relationship with the U.K. The U.K. is Ireland’s second-largest trading partner, not its largest.

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com