DUBLIN, Ireland (3rd UPDATE) – Ireland faced political uncertainty on Saturday, February 27, after two exit polls indicated voters had punished the governing coalition in Europe’s fastest-growing economy, still feeling the pain of years of austerity.
As counting got under way following the parliamentary election, it appeared Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s center-right Fine Gael and its Labour junior partner would lose support as voters angry at continuing hardship shifted to independents and leftwing parties.
Exit polls indicated the two government parties would take between 55 and 68 seats between them, far short of the 80 needed to win a second term.
“It’s a very disappointing day from the government’s point of view,” Tom Curran, Fine Gael’s general secretary told broadcaster RTE.
“If the exit polls are right… we will fall far short of being able to form a government.”
Derek McDowell, Labour’s general secretary, added: “It’s clearly not going to be a good day. We are clearly going to lose some good comrades during the course of the day and I am very sorry about that.”
Both polls indicated that unless Kenny can scrape together support from a variety of small parties and independent politicians, the only clear viable government could be a union of Fine Gael with runners up Fianna Fail.
The two are politically similar but bitter rivals whose divisions date back to Ireland’s 1920s civil war and who ruled out a deal with each other before the election.
“It’s hard to see any sort of government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fail getting together,” said Michael Marsh, a professor at Trinity College Dublin who conducted the RTE exit poll.
“Either we can have another election now and do away with the count, or we’ll let them muddle around for a month or so and maybe they can think the unthinkable,” he added, referring to the possibility of the two parties teaming up.
As stacks of ballot boxes were emptied out and counting began in centers around Ireland, turnout was reported to be slightly under the 70 percent seen in the last election, with first results expected by the early hours of Sunday.
Fianna Fail, the party most closely associated with Ireland’s economic crisis and housing crash, appears to have recovered some ground since it was routed in the last election in 2011.
On the rise were independent politicians, newly-formed parties, anti-austerity groups and the leftwing Sinn Fein party.
The republicans, whose president is Gerry Adams and who were once seen as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), have rebranded themselves as an anti-austerity force south of their power base in Northern Ireland.
It now looks like they could be on course to achieve their goal of becoming the main opposition party in Ireland.
Ireland has become the fastest growing country in the eurozone in recent years, with predicted GDP growth of 4.5 percent in 2016.
Kenny had asked voters to return the coalition to “keep the recovery going”, in the first election held since the country of 4.6 million people exited a bailout in 2013 imposed after the financial crisis.
But anger about rising homelessness and poverty was clear on the streets of Dublin, where thousands marched against austerity on the weekend before the vote calling for an end to a controversial water tax.
“They have broken every single promise, every single promise,” said Jim, a middle-aged Dubliner who said he had voted for the government five years ago but was “totally against” them this time round.
“I’m self-employed. I have to deliver. If you break promises, I don’t want to know you,” he added.
The impact of the election may be felt far beyond Ireland’s borders, according to the Economist magazine, which commented that a Fine Gael defeat with the economy doing well may ramp up pressure on Brussels to reconsider its policy on austerity.
“Ireland’s election may well turn out to be a historic event, not simply for Fine Gael or the other parties contesting it, but also for the future of the eurozone,” it said. – Naomi O’Leary, AFP/ Rappler.com