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From top: Emmanuel Macron Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen; Shene Heneghan

With four candidates within 3% of one another in the polls, France’s presidential election remains volatile. The two most dramatic statistics frequently ignored in the past few weeks, however, are the high level of undecided voters (as much as one third) and those who say they won’t vote (about 28% in a country where 80% turnouts are the norm).

All this, together with the tragic shooting of a policeman in central Paris just days before voting make this easily the toughest French presidential election to call in the history of the 5th republic.

A year ago, many pundits would have said the election of Marine Le Pen as president was considerably more likely than that of Donald Trump or a vote for Brexit and she has done her best to make the most of these two events.

Her campaign has been scandal-ridden from the off with allegations of misappropriation of funds from the European Parliament to loan agreements with those close to the Kremlin in Russia. Despite all this, and despite her party’s poor record in other recent elections (the FN was expected to make breakthroughs in the most recent regional elections but failed) she is still the woman to beat.

If she wins, France’s place in the euro and the EU itself are both very much up for discussion and without France, the continued existence of both is unlikely.

Her main rival began this campaign as an outsider, but as a man who fell in love with, then subsequently married his secondary school French teacher, Emmanuel Macron is used to overcoming the odds.

Apart from a brief stint as economy minister under President Hollande he has no government experience. He left government to set up his own centrist, grassroots, staunchly pro-EU political movement, “En Marche” which has since gone from strength to strength. He now has a strong chance of meeting it through to the 2nd round.

Another candidate firing up his party base is veteran left winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon- who is perhaps best described as a French Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders, he has been drawing big numbers to rallies recently – even to ones where he appears by hologram. Though turnout with the far left is always an issue and most polls have him a few points behind he cannot be ruled out from getting through on Sunday.

The early favourite for this contest was the centre-right’s Francois Fillon who saw poll numbers tumble when it emerged he may have been paying his wife around half a million euro a year to do more or less nothing.

Despite this fall from grace, he is still hovering around 20% in polls, doing very well among the over 60s and Catholics (two groups with consistently high turnout) and benefits from a well-resourced campaign. Staunchly opposing adoption rights for same sex couples and in favour of limiting immigration and stronger relations with Russia, Fillon can be described as being on the right of his own party.

One of the main advantages Fillon would have over his rivals if he were elected is the ability to form a Parliamentary majority after the election. Officially speaking at least, none of the other three can count on more than a handful of MPs in the Assemblee Nationale.

The legislative elections that happen within a few weeks of the second round of the presidential election are bound to give the incumbent a boost but it would be highly unlikely that any of these three movements came close to an outright majority. Fillon himself has his rivals in his own party and may not always get his own way in Parliament.

We can say therefore that the next President of France is likely to be a weak figure whose tenure may change the relationship between Parliament and Presidency for the foreseeable future.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

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From top: European leaders assemble yesterday in Rome, Italy; Shane Heneghan

Cheap phone calls on holiday are of cold comfort to the jobless youth in the South.

Europe needs more.

Shane Heneghan writes:

This weekend EU leaders (what’s left of them) gathered in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome which began the process of European integration as we know it.

In an atmosphere of much mutual backslapping, the story of the European Union was celebrated and a brief declaration on the future of Europe was signed.

Yes, this anniversary comes at a time when the second biggest donor in the club is about to leave, but the declaration signed at Rome tries to make this look as much as possible as an opportunity as well as a difficulty.

The declaration and the celebration itself were, of course, peppered liberally with certain myths. The underlying narrative that European integration has been plain sailing since the late 50s is the easiest one to debunk.

If you go back into the newspaper archives of the 50th, 40th, and 30th anniversaries you will find the Union in various different midlife crises each time. In 2007, for example, the club was desperately trying to salvage something from the failed constitution project- which eventually became the Lisbon treaty.

Even the signing of the Treaty itself was done in a general atmosphere of malaise in the wake of the French Parliament rejecting the proposed European Defence Union a few years previously.

Perhaps this should serve as a warning to those so eager to see the EU gain a defence policy as a reaction to the Trump White House.

The declaration contains an admission that some states may wish to move forward at varying different speeds of integration – like this is something new – that this was even written down is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has had half an eye on what has been going on in the past 60 years.

We have a multispeed Europe perhaps since day one – or at the very least since the signing of the Schengen agreement on free movement in the 1980s.

But of course, the most interesting thing about informal declarations like this is what is not mentioned.

Earlier this week, Greenpeace and other environmental actors lamented the fact that the text has no mention of climate change. This is missing an open goal. Even eurosceptics can sometimes be convinced that environmental issues like this need to be tackled at an international level.

Here Europe has a chance to make itself more cohesive and also, ya know, save the world. As a former Finnish Prime Minister once put it, the EU is like a shark- it must keep moving or it will sink. It needs a big idea.

Well meaning defenders of the project point to successes such as the abolition of roaming charges as justification. Cheap phone calls on holiday are of cold comfort to the jobless youth in the South.

Europe has a single currency now – it’s in our pockets. This is the big leagues. It’s insulting to the citizens to serve up low level issues like this and present it as progress.

We need a common treasury and we should look at increasing the amount of money the EU spends on infrastructure.

The structural funds are arguably one of the best examples of well managed public spending you are likely to find. If this was to be scaled up, even modestly, could have a very strong effect economically.

Speaking as an unrepentant Federalist (I knew I’d work the f bomb into this somehow) I’m so tired of PR exercises like what we saw in Rome. We need more.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

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From top: Dutch political party leaders Geert Wilders (PVV), Emile Roemer (SP), Mark Rutte (VVD), Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA), Alexander Pechtold (D66) and Sybrand van Haersma Buma (CDA) at the offices of De Telegraaf newspaper earlier this month: Shane Heneghan

The Netherlands heads to the polls on Wednesday with 2017’s first test of the wave of populism that dominated 2016.

Shane Heneghan writes:

So far, the main international headlines concerning the Dutch general Election deal with the potential electoral comeback of the far-right wing PVV under the leadership of their founder, Geert Wilders.

Staunchly pro-Israel, and pro-US (particularly under its new management), strongly anti-immigrant and anti-elitist, Wilders’ brand of populism has many echoes of the rise of UKIP, the Front National and Donald Trump.

Wilders is seldom vague in his rhetoric- frequently branding whole groups of emigrants as “Moroccan scum” and referring to Islam as the “ideology of a retarded culture”.

It should be remembered, however, that no opinion poll taken this year has seen his party on more than 23% of the vote and that the more recent polls see them as unlikely to be the largest party.

This brings us to the real story in Dutch politics in recent years.

There has been a kind of Balkanisation in the wake of the decline of both the centre-right VVD and the centre-left Pvda which has led to a mushrooming in small and single issue parties that opinion polls indicate may make forming a government after the election supremely tedious.

The political pallet is vast.

The country now has the world’s only Animal rights party with representation at the national level, a party dedicated to the issues affecting those over 50, a pro migrants party and a reformed evangelical Christian party all of which currently have representation in Parliament and all of which are expected to increase that representation at this election.

Worth watching is the rise of the radical liberal party, D66. A smaller party, with several stints in government under its belt over the past 40 years, they can claim credit for some of the more liberal reforms post war Holland is famous for including euthanasia, drug decriminalisation and same sex marriage.

The party is currently expected to take as many as 20 seats and a swing between now and polling day coupled with their centrist position economically could theoretically leave their leader as the first ever D66 prime minister.

Perhaps more radical if much less likely would be the prospect of the Dutch electing the world’s first Green Prime Minister in the form of Jesse Klaver, a 30 year old family man with Indonesian and Moroccan heritage who is expected to bring his party from four seats to the low 20s.

Given that the next government may involve up to five parties, the process of government formation is in itself is worth examining.

The Dutch monarch appoints an informateur, who – and this could prove to be crucial – may be an MP or senator from any party, who then begins negotiations between potential partners while keeping the King informed in a process that has long been criticised for its secrecy. As this is the 1st election since his mother’s abdication in 2013, it will be interesting to watch how King Willem-Alexander approaches this process.

This election is probably the most unpredictable I have come across in sometime and I include everything 2016 has put us through when I say that. One poll over the weekend suggested that there may be as little as 6% between the top six parties.

Given how badly I performed on these pages when examining the Irish election and the Brexit vote last year I won’t dare make a prediction. But I do think the result may very well set the tone for elections for the rest of 2017 with consequence for France and to a lesser extent Germany.

Get the popcorn.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

Top pic: Getty

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They called it wrong again.

‘sheet poll number cruncher Shane Heneghan writes

Firstly, in the interests of full disclosure let me just say that I was spectacularly wrong about this. I predicted a remain vote of about 52%. The voters gave me the exact opposite result.

When the dust settles, the fact that this was the second major failure in a row of the British polling industry, a country where the polls are traditionally remarkably reliable, should be dealt with but at the moment that is way down our list of considerations.

Let’s just take a step back for a minute and look at what happened.

This situation we are in now is unprecedented and no one can seriously tell you what will happen next. Anyone who says they can is a liar and probably has a very specific agenda.

But for the sake of argument ‘ll go through some of the hypothetical models of Britain’s future that have been going through my head in the past while:

The Norwegian-Icelandic Model
This involves joining the European Economic Area and would leave the UK in a close economic relationship with the EU while giving them an emergency break on freedom of movement and removing them from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The UK would also lose it’s right to appoint a commissioner, elect MEPs and send ministers to the Council of the European Union and still have to pay handsomely into the EU budget while receiving little or no benefit.

The Swiss Model
Much the same as the above only in this case the relationship would be governed by a series of bi-lateral treaties. I think this is the most likely outcome as it gives the UK much more flexibility.

(It is important to note that the above two options involve membership of the Schengen passport free zone which I am assuming Britain will continue to avoid like the plague.)

The Singapore model
In short, this involves the UK being treated as if it were a third country completely detached from Europe. It implies that tariffs and customs inspections would again applied to goods traded between the rest of Europe and the UK. This is by far the most radical option and in many ways the least likely given the close nature of the vote.

There are a few other things to keep in mind in the next few days.

1)
Corbyn has got to go
A man who leads his party in a referendum and fails to convince great swathes of his electoral base of his position will probably have to do the honourable thing sooner or later. A leadership election will almost certainly be triggered by the Parliamentary Labour party in the next few days. The shadow cabinet is already in disarray and the departure of Hilary Benn does not help.

2) This vote is not binding.
The British Parliament is literally the beginning and the end of UK democracy. Referendums have no legal status and if the House of Commons votes to ignore this referendum in the morning then it’s dead in the water. Of course, even if this is entirely legally plausible, it is more or less politically impossible and would probably lead to UKIP forming an armed militia within about six months.

A slightly more likely prospect would be if a new moderate Labour party leader won an election before the exit negotiations concluded on a platform of maintaining full membership. That may sound unlikely but there is a solid 48% voters that feel hard done by and a sliver of the winning side with buyers remorse who may back them and when you factor in that the Conservative party is almost certainly going to lurch towards the right after Cameron leaves them it just might make this scenario a runner.

3) A northern Irish border poll really is a non starter.
We have already seen how the Democratic Unionist Party have moved heaven and earth to stop gay marriage being introduced to Northern Ireland- imagine the effort they would mount to stop a vote on Irish unity. Sinn Féin can hardly be blamed for raising the idea- what else are they for? But the relative silence of the SDLP is also telling. This issue simply is not on the table at the moment despite the North’s difference of opinion with mainland Britain. Things may change if Scotland votes for independence.

4) Britain may drift ideologically into the Atlantic
Future right wing governments in Britain may not be bound by EU social legislation and may slash “red tape” such as maternity leave, paid holidays, anti discrimination rules and other such nonsense dreamed up by water cooler dictators in Brussels. In terms of foreign policy in general they will be even more dependant on the so called “special relationship” with the Americans- how reciprocal that relationship is anyone’s guess.

Finally, I don’t like historical hypotheticals but I can’t help but speculate that John Major should have held a referendum on the Maastricht treaty in 1991.

Presumably, he could have won and used it to silence “the bastards” in his party while nipping the rising tide of Euroscepticism in the bud. This would have probably solidified his premiership more so than his eventual “Back me or sack me” leadership contest.

He didn’t and UKIP was founded in 1994.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter

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From top: A detail from post election Red C poll; From left: Fine Gael’s Leo Varadakar, Paschal Donohoe and Simon Coveney at Trinity College Dublin for talks with Fianna Fáil yesterday

What do recent polls –  B&A, for the Sunday Times last weekend and Red C, for the Sunday Business Post after the election-  tell us about the formation of a new government and/or the chances of new General Election?

Shane Heneghan writes:

The grand coalition I predicted would form from the result we got has so far become little more than a not-so grand game of constitutional chicken; but what effect do opinion polls have on the ongoing developments?

Logically, a rise in a level of support for a particular party at this stage would potentially increase the will within that party to seek a second election- but given the increasing weariness of politics from the population in general and the cost of two national campaigns within six months- this is only half true at best.

However, there will be some swollen chests within Fianna Fail after the weekend’s poll from Behaviour and Attitudes had them leading Fine Gael for the first time in eight years. The ghost of PJ Mara is surely goading them to push for “showtime” once again.

Of course, if it has any effect it probably won’t lead to a second election in and off itself but it is likely to make a Fine Gael minority less likely.

By contrast however, a RedC post election poll seems to show voters’ sympathies with Fine Gael and their predicament with them gaining a few points on their election débâcle.

Old notions around post election momentum seem to hold solid for the smaller parties with the Greens firm at 3% and the SocDems on 5% according to RedC.

But momentum goes both ways and both the Labour and Renua seem to have slumped even further compounding thoughts of speedy recoveries. Maybe dead cats don’t bounce.

So what next. The two scenarios going forward (I know, shoot me) are as follows:

1. Fine Gael cobbles together a minority administration with independents and others dependant on Fianna Fail to get anything done. This is the most likely eventuality and I would be shocked if it didn’t happen. Almost as shocked as I’d be if said government lasted more than 12 months.

2. A grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna fail is still possible. This is by far the most popcorn worthy option but we all now it can never happen because they both disagree on… on… on…. wait don’t tell me… it’ll come to me.

There are folks that say a Fianna Fail minority is possible. They spent most of the mid naughties in a certain tent in Ballybrit.

In closing let me just remind you that a second election before the end of the year is currently 7/2 on Paddy Power. Not that you should take tips from me.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based psephologist.

11/02/2016. TV3 LEADERS ELECTION DEBATE. Pictured  Leader Of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams TD at the first General Election 2016 TV and radio debate on TV3 this evening in association with News talk 106fm. The debate is moderated by Newstalks Pat Kenny and TV3s Colette Fitzpatrick. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie 

Today’s  Sunday Business Post/Red C Poll

A new poll.

Taken before the TV3 leaders’ debate on Thursday.

What does it all mean?

Shane Heneghan writes:

Another poll that would lead to an extremely divided Dáil. It also looks like things are starting to move. Fine Gael are beginning to dive under the 30% mark. Fianna Fail are rising slowly and Sinn Fein are up three percent.

In short, this is another poll that points to protracted post election negotiations and possibly even a second election this year.

We can probably see the theme of another election enter the campaign. Leaders will and should be asked under what circumstances would they force a second general election rather than form a government and why.

One of the more interesting points here is that Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil are very close. [NUI Maynooth lecturer and election analyst] Adrian Kavanagh‘s sterile scientific means of predicting the make up of the Dail based on polls has FF getting more seats than SF despite getting less 1st preferences than them.

Would this be seen as fair? Would this affect coalition negotiations? Yes this is well well down the list of stumbling blocks to the formation of such a government, but if Gerry Adams’ party has more 1st preferences than Michael Martin’s then you can expect the phrase “rotating Taoiseach” to raise it’s head again.

Similarly, we see smaller parties continue to perform well here. Despite this, it’s still hard to see where they might gain on a constituency level. It is possible, for example, that the Social Democrats may get a mere 1.8% (3) of the seats on 4% of the vote.

Shane Heneghan is a Galway-based election expert/Irish political anorak/poll number-cruncher and part of Broadsheet’s ‘crack’ General Election 2016 team.

Fine Gael and Labour slump by five points as Sinn Fein rise (Sunday Business Post)

Pic: Sunday Business Post

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Today’s Irish Times/Ipsos poll

Today’s poll.

What does it all mean?

Shane Heneghan writes:

At face value, there is little to take away from this poll. Fine Gael would seem to have a pre-campaign ceiling of just below 30%. Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein are up and down 2% respectively which would suggest that moderate Republicans may be headed home to the soldiers of destiny. Perhaps this is a back and forth worth watching in the run up to the 1916 commemorations.

Labour on 7% seem to be struggling with their goal of getting to a base of 10% but of even greater concern to them will be the disappointing score of 11% in Dublin- home to most of their safer seats. Fianna Fail are also on 11% in Dublin and this will be the most negative ‘takeaway’ for them here as they seek to reclaim some of their losses from 2011.

Renua and the Social Democrats remain within the margin of error and the perceived wisdom that they will both be doing well to hang on to their sitting parliamentarians seems to be true.

When we break down the numbers demographically, it is interesting to see that if only farmers were allowed to vote Fianna Fail would probably be heading towards an overall majority. Fine Gael are similarly way out ahead with the high income AB group. In terms of age groups, both of the two civil war parties continue to do best among the over 65s.

All of the four main party leaders have alarmingly low approval ratings ranging between 28 and 32% – all of them down somewhat bar a minor increase for Joan Burton. This would hint at much disenchantment with politics in general.

This is the last ‘peace time’ poll before the campaign proper and the high number of voters backing independents and others (usually quite a fickle group) coupled with a reasonably large amount of undecideds would indicate the prospect of lot of voter volatility once the party machines get into full swing.

The glaringly obvious thing to note here is that were these numbers subbed into a general election, it’s likely that the heretofore nearly unspeakable “notion” of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail grand coalition- (perhaps we could call it the “ara-sure-it’s-grand” coalition*) would be the only combination that might yield a stable government. The leadership of both parties may be faced with the unpalatable choice of this shotgun wedding versus another election within six months.

*Note to self -trademark this term

Shane Heneghan is Brussels-based election expert/Irish political anorak/poll number-cruncher and an integral part of Broadsheet’s ‘crack’ General Election 2016 team.