Europe Politics

Ireland votes for a new government on Saturday: Here are the main contenders

Key Points
  • Ireland will hold a general election on Saturday.
  • The vote is needed as the current coalition is breaking down.
  • Sinn Féin may look to wield some influence over the two main right-of-center parties.
President Donald Trump meets with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Washington.
Evan Vucci | AP

Ireland will hold a general election on Saturday with the current ruling government at real risk of losing power.

Since 2017, Leo Varadkar has led the Republic of Ireland in his role as Taoiseach — a word that translates to prime minister and is roughly pronounced "tee-shock." The lower house of Parliament that Varadkar heads is known as the Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland).

Varadkar leads his Fine Gael party in a minority government that has relied on the support of independent lawmakers as well as occasional votes on budget-related issues from the main opposition Fianna Fáil.

The 41-year-old has enjoyed solid support from the Irish population over his handling of the U.K.'s exit from the EU. The country's economy is strong and there is full employment.

But unhappiness remains. Housing, homelessness and health have all been problematic issues and Irish law forcibly makes people redundant at 65 years old — leading to a high number of older people suffering a cash shortfall.

And while jobs are plentiful for the working age people who are willing to live in cities, rent and housing costs have easily outstripped wages.

One opinion poll published Monday suggested that nationalist party Sinn Féin has enjoyed a late surge of support and could gather more backing than both Varadkar's Fine Gael party and Micheál Martin of the main opposition party, Fianna Fail.

Sinn Féin is only entering 42 candidates and with 80 required to form a government, its best hope is to seek an influential role in a coalition government.

A fresh election was needed as a growing number of independent lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with Fine Gael and the temporary confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil came to an end.

The vote takes place on a Saturday for the first time since 1918 and will be held on the same day that Ireland plays a rugby match against Wales. Defending the date, Varadkar said the timing would make it easier for students to vote and that a weekend date would also avoid school closures.

Fine Gael

Varadkar was just 38 years old when he became the 14th Taoiseach of Ireland. His father was an Indian immigrant who moved to Ireland to work as a doctor and his Irish mother worked as a nurse. Varadkar himself came out as gay in 2015, becoming the first Irish minister in history to do so.

Prior to leading government, Varadkar headed four different government departments, including defense, health, social protection and transport.

His party, Fine Gael, is viewed as a center-right party that is generally considered to be market liberal, leaving institutions and individuals to make as many economic decisions as possible. Strongly in favor of the European Union, the party is also firmly against using physical force to forward the cause of unifying Ireland.

Fianna Fáil

Like Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil was born out of the rise of republicanism and was founded by former Irish President Éamon de Valera. Fianna Fáil — an Irish translation of "Soldiers of Destiny" — is again seen as a center-right party.

Policy differences with Fine Gael are the cause of much political science debate, with some suggesting the only real contrast is in how each try to promote the cause of Irish unification and republicanism.

Others suggest that while Fine Gael is more popular with middle-class voters, Fianna Fáil is more likely to attract the working-class.

The party is led by Micheál Martin who has been in that position since 2011, just after the party last held power.

Martin is seen as a seasoned campaigner, but his party is weakened by its handling of the economy in the late-2000s which saw a property boom turn to a wider bust. Ireland was then in contraction until around 2014 before embarking on another spell of economic growth.

Sinn Féin

The former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Féin was considered a no-go area for many voters who were keen to disassociate modern day Ireland from bombing campaigns, killings and violence.

It already shares power in Northern Ireland, and some predict it will, in time, lead Ireland to reunification.

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald speaks to members of the media as she canvasses for support in Dublin on February 6, 2020, ahead of the February 8 General Election.
BEN STANSALL

A big part of the turnaround is Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald who has become a hugely popular figure, consistently leading approval rating polls.

The party is especially popular with younger voters who are perhaps less aware of the 20th century civil war with Britain and attracted by the party's more left-wing policy book.

Despite its poll surge, Sinn Féin's lack of candidates on Saturday mean a junior coalition role is the likely prize sought by McDonald. Both centrist parties have rejected that as a possibility but one poll published by @IrelandElects suggest that is a favored outcome for many.