|Exit polls showed Kenny's Fine Gael party ahead in Ireland's elections [AFP]
Ireland's Fianna Fail party, which has ruled Ireland for 21 of the last 24 years, appears set for a historic defeat in the country's general election, according to exit polls.
A survey by RTE, Ireland's state broadcaster, released an hour before ballot counting began on Saturday, showed Fianna Fail, likely to win just 15.1 per cent.
The opposition Fine Gael party would likely win 36.1 per cent of the vote, the survey suggested.
Enda Kenny, the Fine Gael leader, told reporters: "This country has given my party a massive endorsement to provide stable and strong government."
Brian Cowen, the Irish prime minister whose plummeting popularity prompted him to resign as Fianna Fail party leader before the electoral campaign began, acknowledged that his party was likely to come off badly in the polls.
"Clearly today there wasn't support for our party in great numbers," he said as vote counting continued on Saturday.
While exit polls indicated that Kenny's Fine Gael party would fall short of an overall majority, the party is expected to form a coalition with Labour, its centre-left rival.
Michael Noonan, a finance spokesman, said his preference for a new government would be in coalition with Labour.
"Our experience of the independents participating in government over the last number of years is that they are very high maintenance ... So I think for what we are facing into, a stable government with a secure majority would probably be best for the country."
Fianna Fail's looming electoral defeat will likely be the biggest collapse in support for any Irish party since independence from Britain in 1921.
Its defeat would also make it the first Eurozone government to be brought down by the debt crisis.
The party lost popularity after it went cap in hand last year to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout equivalent to $92bn, with voters angry over tax hikes, wage cuts and 13 per cent unemployment.
Fine Gael has promised to renegotiate the terms for repaying the bailout.
In Dublin, Fianna Fail was expected to retain just one seat out of a possible 47, that of Brian Lenihan, a former finance minister who has remained popular.
Batt O'Keeffe, a former minister, who retired ahead of the poll, said: "I saw some headline which said 'kick them in the ballots' and certainly Fianna Fail got that kick today."
The RTE/Millward Brown Lansdowne poll, which traditionally provides an accurate picture of voting, indicated Sinn Fein would receive 10.1 per cent of the vote, the Greens 2.7 per cent and independent candidates 15.4 per cent.
Counting of ballots is expected to continue through Sunday as officials work through Ireland's proportional representation system.
In each round of counting, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and those ballots go to the candidates marked as the second choice.
The process continues until all the seats are filled; Irish constituencies have three, four or five seats.
Under Ireland's proportional representation voting system, it is not exactly clear how these results will translate into seats in the 166-member Dail, the Irish parliament.