Irish voters go to the polls today, with anger over the collapse of the economy and the cost of rescuing banks expected to result in the biggest shift of political power in the country’s history.
Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael will emerge as the biggest party and may form a government with the Labour Party or the support of independent lawmakers, polls suggest. Fianna Fail, which dominated Irish politics for eight decades and has governed since 1997, faces its worst-ever election after Ireland resorted to an 85 billion-euro ($117 billion) bailout in November.
“This election is being fought on economic issues of historic importance,” said Dermot O’Leary, chief economist at Goodbody Stockbrokers in Dublin. “These are not going to be just issues for this election but for a number of elections.”
Voting starts across the country of 4.5 million people at 7 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. to fill the 166-seat parliament in Dublin, called the Dail. Counting begins tomorrow, and the first indications of the result will come at 8 a.m. when state broadcaster RTE publishes an exit poll.
Voter turnout in Dublin City was 30 percent by 3 p.m., according to an e-mailed statement. Irish voters elect candidates in a proportional representation system, which means that a voter can list candidates by preference in multi-seat constituencies.
“It is a lovely little country,” said Sylvia McDougall, 53, speaking outside the St. Andrew’s polling station in central Dublin today. “But it has been ruined.”
Support for Fine Gael stands at 40 percent, according to a Red C poll published on Feb. 23 by Paddy Power Plc, compared with 15 percent for Fianna Fail, which has governed for three of every four years since winning its first election in 1932 and has averaged about 45 percent support in general elections.
“I was always a Fianna Fail supporter, a die-hard,” said Charlie Scullion, 53, a government worker in Dublin. “Not now. They abandoned the people, the country. I’ll vote for an independent candidate in the election.”
Lawmakers not affiliated to any party drew support from 14 percent of likely voters, according to the poll of 1,500 people between Feb. 19 and Feb. 22. Right now, a coalition between Fine Gael and Labour, which drew 18 percent support in the poll, is the most likely outcome, according to odds offered by Paddy Power, Ireland’s biggest bookmaker.
Fine Gael could achieve an overall majority for the first time in the party’s history, Glas Securities Ltd., the Dublin-based fixed-income firm, said in a note this morning.
“You shouldn’t take a chance depending on a few independents who might let you down,” said Garret FitzGerald, who served two terms as Irish prime minister in the 1980s. “You are better off with a large majority to do the things that are necessary. I would think Enda Kenny might share that view.”
The new government will inherit an economy that has shrunk around 15 percent since the end of 2007 while unemployment has tripled to a rate of 13.4 percent. A net 100,000 people will leave the country in the two years through April 2012, the Dublin-based Economic & Social Research Institute said in its most recent quarterly report last month.
The European Central Bank and Irish Central Bank are propping the financial system with about 140 billion euros, and the government was last year forced to seek a bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund after it was locked out of the bond markets.
Fine Gael leader Kenny, 59, said this week his priority will be to renegotiate the 5.8 percent interest rate on the bailout. The party has said it may seek European agreement to share the burden of rescuing the country’s financial system with senior bank bondholders.
EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said on Feb. 15 there is “no appetite” for imposing losses on senior bondholders at Irish banks.
“There is a lot of smart constituency politician about Kenny, very skilled at maneuvering in a small pond, but I am not so sure those talents will be so useful on the bigger arena in Europe,” said Peadar Kirby, a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Limerick in western Ireland. “This will be an absolutely dramatic election.”