|Al Jazeera's Rory Challands says it is no surprise that parties taking part in the election campaign are promising change
Europe's debt crisis is set to claim its first political victim in an Irish election dominated by the trauma of economic collapse and the painful path back to financial stability.
Ireland's 3.1 million voters began voting early on Friday, with every poll pointing to a new government led by Fine Gael, until now the perennial runner-up in Irish elections.
Voters are said to be in a vicious mood over the bursting of a property bubble that has left them steeped in debt and facing years of austerity to repay the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for an $117.3bn bailout.
The ruling Fianna Fail party is braced for a record drubbing, with opinion polls suggesting it will only retain around 20 seats in the 166-seat parliament, ending the dominant position it has commanded in Irish politics since independence from Britain in the last century.
The big question is whether Fine Gael will need a coalition partner, most likely the Labour Party.
Asked what she hoped for from this election, voter Aoife McCardle, a loyal Labour voter, said: "Oh God, very little. I have very little hope. I want change I suppose.''
John Healy, a voter in central Dublin, said he wanted "a change of parties they couldn't do a worse job''.
That sentiment weighs heavily against Fianna Fail, the party that led the government through the boom years of the Celtic Tiger economy of 1994-2007 and into the collapse of the property bubble and the fall of the nation's banks.
|Ireland has until 2015 to get its budget deficit under control [AFP]
The government, and thus the taxpayers, now control the Anglo Irish Bank, the Irish Nationwide and EBS building societies.
The government also holds stakes in the Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks.
Then Ireland suffered the humiliation of a massive bailout, a $92bn credit line from the European Central Bank and the IMF.
The 2010 budget deficit was a record 32 per cent of gross domestic product and the country was left with 2,800 housing developments that were not fully completed, some 10,000 unfinished houses.
Rory Challands, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Dublin, said: "It's up to the next leaders of this country, whoever they may be, to make sure there are enough tourist dollars to get Ireland moving again."
Ireland's plight has inspired a lively contest with a record 566 candidates including 179 independents for the 166 seats in Ireland's lower house in parliament, the Dail.
Nearly 49,000 people have rushed to register to vote in recent weeks.
A poll published on Thursday in the Irish Independent showed Fine Gael well ahead of other parties in being trusted to sort out public finances, create jobs and improve the health system. Labour ranked second in each category.
Enda Kenny, Fine Gael leader, campaigned in northwestern Ireland on Thursday, urging voters to "turn your anger into action''.
Fine Gael has held a comfortable lead throughout the campaign with support nearing 40 per cent, large enough to inspire speculation it might even win the 84 seats needed for a majority in the Dail.
Labour stands at around 20 per cent, in advance of Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein, the Northern Ireland-based party that supported the Irish Republican Army, is expected to gain seats.
Voting in Friday's elections will be from 07:00-22:00 GMT and the first exit polls with be released early on Saturday.
Manual counting under Ireland's system of proportional representation is likely to continue into Sunday.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies