DUBLIN (AFP) - Ireland faced the prospect of political deadlock on Saturday, after the first exit poll from the election indicated the governing coalition has failed to win enough votes to secure a second term.
Both Prime Minister Enda Kenny's centre-right Fine Gael and its Labour junior partner lost support, as many voters in the eurozone country complained they had not felt the benefits of economic growth.
Fine Gael's support dropped from 36.1 per cent in the last election in 2011 to 26.1 per cent in Friday's vote, while Labour's fell from 19.5 to 7.8 per cent, according to the exit poll conducted by Ipsos, MRBI for the Irish Times.
The Times calculated that Fine Gael and Labour may get 58 to 68 seats between them - far short of the 80 needed for a majority.
Kenny had asked voters to return the coalition to "keep the recovery going", in the first election held since Ireland exited a bailout imposed following a deep financial crisis.
But while Fine Gael looks set to be the largest party, Kenny will likely be forced to look for additional partners for support in government.
Possibilities include cobbling together extra support from independent politicians and small parties, a re-run of the election, a minority government, or a "grand coalition" between Fine Gael and old rivals Fianna Fail.
Fianna Fail were the runners-up in the exit poll, which showed the party set to almost double its seats compared to 2011, when voters punished the party for an economic crisis and housing crash under its governance.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are neighbours on the political spectrum but have deep divisions dating back to Ireland's 1920s civil war, and both Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin previously dismissed the idea of governing together.
"Some of the old guard in both parties because of historical patterns would find it very hard to swallow," said Gail McElroy, professor in political science at Trinity College Dublin.
"In policy it would actually be the easiest coalition to run, it would be very stable. But for the old guard it's admitting defeat."
Counting is due to get under way from 0900 GMT on Saturday with results expected by the early hours of Sunday.
Turnout was reported to be slightly under the 70 per cent of the previous election in 2011.
Stacks of ballot boxes from around Ireland were gathered in counting centres, where they will be unlocked and their contents sorted by election officers, as the country of 4.6 million inhabitants waits to learn if protracted negotiations will be necessary to form a government.
Parties will be mindful of a deadline of March 10, when the new parliament is set to meet and nominate a new prime minister or Taoiseach.
The exit poll showed left-wing Sinn Fein, which has re-branded as an anti-austerity force south of its Northern Ireland power base, in third place with 14.9 per cent support, an increase from 10 per cent in 2011.
Ireland has become the European single currency's champion of economic growth in recent years, but there is anger over increased homelessness and poverty.
This 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 round.
"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, 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.