Election Upheaval Is Expected in Ireland; Economic Woes Blamed on Political Leaders

Despite the worldwide nature of the economic recession, Irish voters are charging their own political leaders with the responsibility for their country's problems. It is often said that perception frequently becomes reality. Ireland's leading political party has been unable to convince the voters that it is dealing with the current recession decisively and effectively.

A shocking Irish Times poll of 2,000 voters, conducted in the middle of May, shows a nearly complete lack of confidence in Prime Minister Brian Cowen and his Fianna Fail government. According to the poll, Cowen's personal approval rating has dropped to 18 percent of the electorate and his party's overall approval rating is now only 21 percent.

Ireland is holding three elections on June 5, and it will be almost impossible for Fianna Fail to recover in time to prevent startling losses. There are local elections to choose city council members and other local officials. There is the European Parliament election to choose the Irish members of the European Parliament (MEP). And there are two elections for Members of the Irish Parliament to fill vacancies.

Fianna Fail is expected to do very poorly in local elections and the vacancy elections but because of the way the districts are drawn they will maintain three of their four MEPs.

Regardless of the outcome on June 5, the loss of faith in the current leadership is more testimony to the severe impact of the recession on the economy and on people's lives rather than to the actual performance of Cowen and his Fianna Fail Ministers. The Fine Gael and Labour opposition leaders are more interested in gaining power than in solving the crisis and it is much easier to criticize than be constructive. They are turning up the heat every day. It is doubtful that different leadership will be able to change the economy, but that is the way of politics.

That being said, perhaps the government could have mitigated the storm if it had been more proactive earlier. The problem is the ever-changing landscape, with unexpected severe problems arising weekly. The leaders of the banking system, for instance, have thoroughly disgraced themselves with many losing their jobs as a result. They were deliberately borrowing funds from each other in order to confuse annual reporting figures.

In the meantime, people are suffering and becoming very angry. If national elections were held today there is real doubt the current government would survive. The elections on June 5 will provide substantial clues as to how much trouble its leadership is facing.

The polls have also offered some positive news. It appears the Irish voters are ready to approve the new European Union Constitution as amended by the so called "Lisbon Treaty." When the treaty changes were first presented to the Irish voters, they were soundly defeated in an outburst of rural nationalism even though all major political parties, with one exception, urged their voters to approve.

Cowen has repeatedly called for the Irish people to approve the treaty. In fact, he has given assurances to other European nations that this time the Irish voters will endorse the changes. The vote has not yet been scheduled but it should come soon and may be a very positive outcome for Cowen's reputation in Ireland. The only significant party pushing for a "No" vote is Sinn Fein.

Of course, should the economy begin to grow again and the 11.4 percent unemployment rate start falling, Cowen will be considered a genius and his future will be secure. Unfortunately for him, that scenario does not look like it will come to pass any time soon.