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Posted at 2:32 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Ireland's electoral revolution (and one of my favorite ads)

By E.J. Dionne

Ireland got a new taoiseach (prime minister) today. Enda Kenny of the Fine Gael Party won overwhelming support in the Irish Parliament and will take office after one of the truly revolutionary elections in Irish history.

The voting involved one of the biggest losses by an incumbent party in any democratic election, anywhere. The outgoing ruling party, Fianna Fail, won 77 seats in the last election. It emerged from the Feb. 25 election with just 20 seats, an astonishing repudiation. Kenny's Fine Gael won 76 seats, up from 51. The two big parties in Ireland are generally regarded as center-right, but in this election, the left achieved a real breakthrough. Labor, the traditional party of the center-left, went from 20 seats in the last election to 37 this time, its best performance ever. It has joined Fine Gail in the new coalition government. Further left, Sinn Fein went from four seats to 14 seats, and a variety of left-of-center Independents and third parties (including the United Left Alliance) have banded together in a 16-seat Parliamentary group.

The big question is whether Fianna Fail can survive, which is like asking if the Democratic Party can survive in Chicago, so dominant has the Irish party been. Fianna Fail's Web site brags (with some accuracy) that it is "the single most coherent force in Irish politics, so much so indeed that alternative governments have been characterized by their opposition to Fianna Fail as their only common bond." The party adds, and it's true, that "Fianna Fail is second only to the Social Democrats in Sweden in its length of tenure in office."

The best short but compelling description I have seen of the mess that Fianna Fail's economic policies created was offered in a column last November by Paul Krugman. When the Irish banks went bust after a speculative bubble burst, the Irish government stepped in and guaranteed the banks' debts. The result, as Krugman said, was disastrous:

You might have expected those who lent money to the banks to share in the losses. After all, they were consenting adults, and if they failed to understand the risks they were taking that was nobody's fault but their own. But, no, the Irish government stepped in to guarantee the banks' debt, turning private losses into public obligations.

Before the bank bust, Ireland had little public debt. But with taxpayers suddenly on the hook for gigantic bank losses, even as revenues plunged, the nation's creditworthiness was put in doubt. So Ireland tried to reassure the markets with a harsh program of spending cuts.

Step back for a minute and think about that. These debts were incurred, not to pay for public programs, but by private wheeler-dealers seeking nothing but their own profit. Yet ordinary Irish citizens are now bearing the burden of those debts.

Krugman concluded his column by asking "what it will take for serious people to realize that punishing the populace for the bankers' sins is worse than a crime; it's a mistake." This election might be seen as the Irish electorate's answer to Krugman's question. The vast majority of Irish voters said: Enough! The new government will now be trying to renegotiate the terms of Ireland's bailout by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. I wish them luck. The Irish people don't deserve the troubles they face now.

One of the best ads I have seen in a long time -- partly because it so perfectly captured Ireland's prevailing mood and the center-left's response to it -- was this one from the Labor Party. I have a hunch that this style of ad will become increasingly popular around the world.

As a small-d democrat, I love how this ad reminds people of how important a single citizen's vote can be. Now, we'll see what the new government does with all the support it has received.

By E.J. Dionne  | March 9, 2011; 2:32 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Oh! How quaint! he refers to himself as a "..small d-democrat." I guess he thinks it makes him immune to the newly discovered Lying Gene which countless Scientists say puts Democrats (that's a big D) at risk. Like, the biggest, big D Democrat of all, Barry Soetoro: "..With one stroke of my pen, when I become President, I will close Gitmo and bring all our troops home." Do any of you lying Democrats remember that? You probably have forgotten, "..I Did Not Have Sex With That Woman."

Posted by: fregameeate | March 9, 2011 4:14 PM | Report abuse

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