LEINSTER, IRELAND – Ireland faced political uncertainty on Saturday after two exit polls indicated voters had punished the outgoing governing coalition in Europe’s fastest-growing economy, which is feeling the pain of years of austerity.
Both Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s center-right Fine Gael and its Labour junior partner lost support as voters angry at continuing hardship in the eurozone country shifted to independent politicians and left-wing parties.
Exit polls indicated the two government parties would take between 55 and 68 seats between them — far short of the 80 needed to win a second term — as counting was set to begin.
“It’s a very disappointing day from the government’s point of view,” Tom Curran, Fine Gael’s general secretary told public broadcaster RTE. “If the exit polls are right … we will fall far short of being able to form a government.”
Both polls indicated the only viable government could be a union of Fine Gael with runner-up Fianna Fail. They are politically similar but are bitter rivals whose divisions date back to Ireland’s 1920s civil war and ruled out a deal with each other before the election.
“Either we can have another election now, and do away with the count, or we’ll let them muddle around for a month or so and maybe they can think the unthinkable,” said Michael Marsh, a professor at Trinity College Dublin who conducted the exit poll for RTE. “It’s hard to see any sort of government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fail getting together.”
Fianna Fail, the party most associated with Ireland’s economic crisis and housing crash, appears to have recovered some ground since it was routed in the last election in 2011.
On the rise were independent politicians, newly formed parties, anti-austerity groups and the left-wing Sinn Fein party, which has ridden a wave of support as it re-branded as an anti-austerity force south of its power base in Northern Ireland, putting it on course to be the main opposition party in Ireland.
In any negotiations, parties will be mindful of a March 10 deadline when the new parliament is to meet and nominate a new prime minister, or taoiseach.
Stacks of ballot boxes from around Ireland were gathered in counting centers, with first results expected by the early hours of Sunday.
Turnout was reported to be slightly under the 70 percent of the previous election in 2011.
Ireland has become the European single currency’s champion of economic growth in recent years, posting 4.8 percent growth in 2014 — the highest in the European Union.
Kenny had asked voters to return the coalition to “keep the recovery going,” in the first election held since the country of 4.6 million inhabitants exited a bailout imposed after a deep financial crisis.
But anger about rising homelessness and poverty was clear on the streets of Dublin, where thousands marched against austerity on the weekend before the vote calling for an end to a controversial water tax.
“They have broken every single promise, every single promise,” said Jim, a middle-aged Dubliner who said he had voted for the government five years ago but was “totally against” them this time around. “I’m self-employed. I have to deliver. If you break promises, I don’t want to know you,” he said.
The impact of the election may be felt far beyond Ireland’s borders, according to the Economist weekly, which commented that a Fine Gael defeat with the economy doing well may ramp up pressure on Brussels to reconsider its policy on austerity.
“Ireland’s election may well turn out to be a historic event, not simply for Fine Gael or the other parties contesting it, but also for the future of the eurozone,” it said.