Ireland's opposition wins majority
Fine Gael party leads the vote, ending the 80-year dominance of Fianna Fail in an election focused on economic woes.
Last Modified: 27 Feb 2011 11:34 GMT
The shape of the next government in Ireland is hanging in the balance as counting of votes continues [EPA]

Ireland's opposition parties have made big gains in a general election focused on the country's economic woes as angry voters ended the 80-year dominance of Fianna Fail.

The Fine Gael party was leading the pack, but the shape of the next government is hanging in the balance as counting continues for a second day.

By Sunday 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. Fine Gael was widely expected to form a coalition government with Labour.

But with Fine Gael sensing that it might win nearly 80 seats, party leaders also talked about forming alliances with independent candidates.

Enda Kenny, party leader, destined to become prime minister, pledged to move quickly to form a government.

"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 polled 36.1 per cent support with the first round of counting completed in all 43 constituencies.

Labour, Fine Gael's possible coalition partner, was running second at 19 per cent while Fianna Fail polled a historic low of 17 per cent.

The Green Party, which had six seats in the Dail and was Fianna Fail's junior partner in government, lost all its seats.

'Political earthquake'

Newspapers described the routing of Fianna Fail, which has dominated Irish politics for the last 80 years, as a "political earthquake".

Irish voters polling preferences were a response to the country's 13 per cent unemployment, tax hikes, wage cuts and a humiliating bailout that Ireland had to accept from the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In elections going back to 1932, Fianna Fail had never won less than 39 per cent of the vote and had always been the largest party in the Dail.

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.

Brian Cowen, the outgoing prime minister, had fallen to record low popularity and resigned as Fianna Fail party leader even before the election campaign kicked off.

He had wanted to hold the election in March, 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 $92 bn credit line from the European Central Bank and the IMF.

The loan is contingent on Ireland cutting $20.6bn from its deficit spending over the coming four years and imposing the harshest cuts this year.

However, 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 nationalised banks shoulder some of the losses.

Kenny, a former teacher, is the longest serving lawmaker in the Dail. He is viewed as a steady pair of hands, but he has his task cut out to fulfil his pledge on the bailout.

Fine Gael said it would seek to balance public finances mainly through cuts, not tax hikes; it would also reform the health service and abolish 150 public bodies.

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