Ireland’s Labour Party elected its first female leader on Friday, naming lawmaker Joan Burton to guide the nation’s traditional voice for the poor.
Welcoming her election, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny announced Burton’s appointment as deputy prime minister, a post previously held by the outgoing Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore.
Labour is the junior party in Ireland’s coalition government.
In her victory speech, the 65-year-old Burton said Labour faces a fight to remain Ireland’s main left-wing party, given its slumping support in opinion polls and a heavy defeat in May’s European and council elections.
Ireland’s parliament faces re-election by March 2016, when the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party hopes to woo Labour supporters with an anti-establishment, punish-the-rich message.
Many Labour voters have expressed dismay that, since 2011, the party has helped lead a government committed to increasing taxes on property and utilities while cutting welfare benefits.
Ireland has imposed deepening austerity measures since 2008 as its credit-fueled property boom collapsed, pushing domestic banks to the edge of insolvency and forcing the government to negotiate an international bailout.
Kenny’s government remains committed to austerity despite the fact that Ireland has finished its bailout and resumed normal borrowing on bond markets. It plans a further 2 billion euros (US$2.7 billion) in new taxes and cuts in the budget for next year in hopes of reducing next year’s deficit closer to the eurozone target of 3 percent of GDP.
Burton has been vocal in questioning the need for more cuts. Some analysts believe Labour could break ranks with Kenny’s conservative Fine Gael party and trigger an early election.