Ireland's voters 'reject' two main parties

Exit polls show ruling coalition led by Fine Gael and rival Fianna Fail losing to protest groups

DUBLIN • Ireland's two main political foes were left considering an unlikely alliance yesterday after exit polls suggested voters had rejected established parties - including the ruling coalition - in favour of protest groups and independents.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael took 25 per cent of votes in Friday's election, according to a poll for broadcaster RTE, released yesterday. Its ally, the Labour Party, took 7 per cent.

Under Ireland's electoral system, about 44 per cent is needed for an overall majority.

The polls indicated that unless Mr Kenny can scrape together support from a variety of small parties and independent politicians, the only clear viable government could be a union of Fine Gael with runner-up Fianna Fail.

Fianna Fail, which lost power in 2011, secured 21 per cent in the RTE poll. No previous Irish election has seen Fine Gael and Fianna Fail - heirs to opposing sides in a civil war almost a century ago - fall below a combined 50 per cent of the vote.

Fine Gael officials conceded that the alliance has lost its majority.

Like governments in Greece, Portugal and Spain, Mr Kenny's administration emerged from Europe's debt crisis to feel the force of popular wrath over spending cuts and tax increases.

Framed as a debate over how to distribute the profits of accelerating economic growth, Mr Kenny's campaign to "keep the recovery going" rang hollow with many voters yet to feel any impact after years of austerity.

"There's total disillusionment with party politics. The independents and the smaller parties seem to be almost like the last hope for the country," said Mr John McKeever, a voter in Dublin. "It's not a recovery for a good 30-40 per cent of the country. It's a rich man's recovery."

While Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have few policy differences, they showed no appetite to team up during the campaign, with one minister describing the prospect as a "nightmare".

Others fear it would allow left-wing Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army, which polled at 15-16 per cent, to establish itself as the main opposition party.

As stacks of ballot boxes were emptied out and counting began in centres around Ireland, turnout was reported to be slightly under the 70 per cent seen in the last election, with first results expected by the early hours of today.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Ireland's voters 'reject' two main parties'. Print Edition | Subscribe