Ireland’s governing party crushed: exit polls

Ireland’s ruling Fianna Fail party suffered a crushing defeat in elections dominated by the economic collapse and an EU-IMF bailout, exit polls showed Saturday, with the opposition poised to take power.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen’s party, which has ruled Ireland for most of the last 80 years, slumped to its worst ever general election result with just 15.1 percent of the vote, the poll for state broadcaster RTE said.

As widely expected, the election has seen Dublin become the first government to fall as a result of the debt crisis in the 17-country euro zone. The main opposition Fine Gael party is set to form the new government and its leader Enda Kenny will be prime minister after it took 36.1 percent in Friday’s election, although it failed to win enough votes to govern alone.

Fine Gael is on course to take more than 70 seats in the 166-seat Dail, or lower parliament, analysts said.

The centrist party’s deputy director of elections, Frank Flannery, told RTE that if the exit poll was correct “it was an absolutely amazing and historic election”.

Noel Dempsey, a former minister in the Fianna Fail government, conceded that he would be happy if his party emerged with more than 20 seats, less than a third of its total in the outgoing parliament.

“It’s looking pretty grim, I have to say,” he said.

Fine Gael will need support from other parties or independents to form a government, and could turn to Labour, who secured 20.5 percent, according to the exit poll of 3,500 voters by Millward Brown Lansdowne.

Fianna Fail was the target of public anger over the debt crisis that crippled Ireland’s once-vibrant “Celtic Tiger” economy and forced it to agree to an 85-billion-euro ($115-billion) bailout with the European Union and International Monetary Fund last November.

Cowen had conceded defeat even before polls closed, telling local media Friday as he cast his ballot in the central county of Offaly that his party would now “regroup”.

“I have always been proud of who we are and what we are. This organisation will come again,” he said.

Fianna Fail is currently led by ex-foreign minister Micheal Martin, who took over in January after Cowen quit over his handling of the economic crisis following months of pressure from his party. Cowen is leaving parliament but will remain as prime minister until the new Dail meets on March 9. Counting of the votes began at 9:00 am (0900 GMT) and the first results were expected later Saturday. RTE said turnout was higher than the previous election, as about 70 percent of the 3.1 million people eligible voted.

Kenny, a 59-year-old former teacher, has capitalised on the anger against Fianna Fail over soaring unemployment and Ireland’s mountains of debt, vowing to amend the terms of the international loans and restore Ireland’s pride.

He has already visited Brussels and Berlin to discuss renegotiating the “punitive” 5.8 percent interest rate and the cost of restructuring the banks.

The EU has indicated it might review the deal, but Dublin is under pressure to cut its ultra-low 12.5 percent corporate tax rate in return. Kenny argues the rate is vital for Ireland’s economy.

But the Fine Gael leader has largely accepted the Fianna Fail government’s four-year austerity budget as the way to restore Ireland’s finances, and warned there will be pain ahead.

Preliminary predictions by Micheal Marsh, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, suggest Fine Gael is on course for about 72 seats in the Dail, short of the 84 needed for a majority.

Fianna Fail could win just 20 seats, compared to 77 in 2007, while Labour is set for at least 38 seats, Marsh told RTE — but warned the outcome was uncertain because of Ireland’s complicated single transferable vote system.

He said the number of independents could soar to up to 20 as voters abandon the main parties, while the republican Sinn Fein — whose leader Gerry Adams is standing for the first time — could double its tally to 10 seats.