Ireland’s opposition parties have rolled up big gains in the national election, but the shape of the next government was hanging in the balance as counting continued for a second day yesterday.
The Fine Gael party was leading the pack as voters angry about Ireland’s battered economy ended the 80-year dominance of the Fianna Fail party.
By yesterday morning, 57 seats had been won by Fine Gael, 30 by Labour, 13 by Fianna Fail, 12 by Sinn Fein and 13 by smaller parties and independents. It takes 83 seats for a majority in the Dail, the lower house of the parliament.
“People were waiting to take revenge on Fianna Fail and they have certainly done so with great gusto,” said Batt O’Keefe, one of 18 Fianna Fail incumbents who chose not to seek re-election.
Fine Gael was widely expected to form a coalition government with Labour, but with Fine Gael sensing that it might win almost 80 seats, party leaders also talked about forming alliances with independent candidates. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, destined to become Irish taoiseach (prime minister), pledged to move quickly to form a government.
Fine Gael polled 36.1 percent support with the first round of counting completed in all 43 constituencies, a figure that would put it in power, but without a majority of seats in the Dail, the lower house of parliament.
Labour, Fine Gael’s possible coalition partner, was running second at 19 percent while Fianna Fail polled a historic low of 17 percent.
Irish voters punished Fianna Fail for 13 percent unemployment, tax hikes, wage cuts and a humiliating bailout that Ireland had to accept from the EU and the IMF.
In elections going back to 1932, Fianna Fail had never won less than 39 percent of the vote and had always been the largest party in the Dail.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who resigned his seat in the British parliament to run for the Dail, was among the winners.
The Green Party, which had six seats in the Dail and was Fianna Fail’s junior partner in government, lost all its seats.
Fine Gael (“tribe of the Irish”) and Fianna Fail (“soldiers of destiny”) were born from opposing sides in Ireland’s civil war of the 1920s and many see little difference between them on the issues. Fianna Fail, however, was leading the government when the property boom collapsed in 2007 and it put taxpayers on the hook to bail out Ireland’s failing banks.
Outgoing Irish prime minister Brian Cowen had fallen to record low popularity and resigned as Fianna Fail party leader even before the campaign. He had wanted to hold the election next month, but agreed to hold it early in a deal to win confirmation of the hated EU-IMF bailout.
“Fianna Fail will come back,” said new party leader Micheal Martin, who bucked the tide to hold his seat.
The new government, like the last, will be constrained by the terms negotiated for the 85 billion euro (US$117 billion) credit line from the European Central Bank and the IMF. The loan is contingent on Ireland cutting 15 billion euros from its deficit spending over the coming four years and imposing the harshest cuts this year.
Kenny has pledged to try to negotiate easier terms for repaying the loan. He has also promised to create 100,000 new jobs in five years and to make holders of senior bonds in Ireland’s nationalized banks shoulder some of the losses.