While the pollsters predicted a close vote in the Irish referendum to remove a constitutional amendment which effectively bans abortion, the camp opposed to the change has already conceded defeat, while early results indicate a landslide in favour of removing the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution with a majority of around 70%.
This demonstrates that as was the case in so many recent votes ranging from Donald Trump’s election to Brexit, the professional polling agencies are getting things wrong. The reason for this should be obvious enough. Most of the old polling companies are relying on control groups to estimate a final result that are increasingly unrepresentative of the wider voting public. In other words, when it comes to big issues such as the Trump-Hillary election, Brexit and the Irish abortion referendum, people are exercising their right to vote who in more mundane elections tended not to participate in the political process.
This also proves that the alleged phenomenon of “right wing” populism that has swept through western elections in recent years is a misnomer as by definition, populism indicates anti-establishment popular trends that can swing left as easily as they can swing right.
In fact, throughout recent European and North American elections, the biggest losers have been so-called centrist interests who have lost ground both to revitalised leftist and right wing forces. Thus, the vote in Ireland is a victory for populism as an Irish population that is increasingly rejecting post-colonial domination by what in effect was the neo-colonial influence of the Roman Catholic Church, once again voted against a traditional Catholic red-line.
This is not the first time that a majority of Irish citizens voted for populist measures designed to secularise a country that had erstwhile been dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. It happened in 1995 when Irish voters opted to legalise divorce and again in 2015 when Irish voters opted to legalise same-sex marriage.
In Ireland, there is a clearly consistent trend of Irish populists voting for secularising legislation against the wishes of an old established institution. While the Trump vote in the US was a populist move from the right against a centrist/neo-liberal bi-partisan establishment, not every populist vote follows this ideological trend because every nation’s old elite represent something different. A clear example of this was the recent Italian general election where the two big winners were the populist left-wing 5 Star Movement and the populist right wing Lega Nord. Now, these two ideologically opposed populist parties will form a governing coalition against the wishes of the old technocratic centrists who performed terribly during the election.
Likewise, in Britain one saw the phenomenon of a populist/anti-elite Brexit vote swayed mostly by rightest forces but with some added support from traditional socialists. Now, a majority of British voters look set to unseat the old elitist Conservative party in favour of a socialist led Labour party.
All of this indicates a west-wide trend of opposition to the old elites of the so-called centre, but while some indicate that this trend is increasingly right-wing, this analysis was always flawed – in the case of Ireland fatally flawed.
While countries like China, Russia and the DPRK have very progressive abortion laws in spite of being culturally conservative societies, in Europe and the wider English speaking world, the abortion issue is one which typically pins the religious right against the secular left and secular centre. In the context of Irish society it can therefore be accurately stated that the referendum victory against the 8th Amendment was a victory for populist progressives, just as the Brexit vote across the Irish Sea was on the whole a victory for rightest/ultra-nationalist forces (albeit with some socialists on the other side of the spectrum).
The old right/left schisms of the past are woefully outdated when it comes to analysing modern political trends. In reality, far from a left/right schism, the present reality is one of the ‘new versus old’. This means that while in Asia and the Middle East incumbent leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Hassan Rouhani, Bashar al-Assad, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Recep Tayyip Erdogan remain popular, in Europe and North America, the opposite is true. In the west, being an incumbent candidate or supporting a long established political reality is increasingly a liability for those who want change whether from the left or right.