DUBLIN, Ireland – Ireland’s ruling Fianna Fail party faced its worst defeat in nearly 80 years as a tidal wave of voter anger about the country being nearly pushed to bankruptcy swept an opposition party to the brink of power Saturday.
Fine Gael polled 36.1 percent support with the first round of counting completed in all 43 constituencies, a figure that would put it in power but without a majority of seats in the Dail, the lower house of parliament. Party leader Enda Kenny, destined to become prime minister, pledged to move quickly to form a government.
Labour, Fine Gael’s possible coalition partner, was running second at 19 percent while Fianna Fail polled a historic low of 17 percent.
Irish voters punished Fianna Fail for 13 percent unemployment, tax hikes, wage cuts and a humiliating bailout that Ireland had to accept from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. In elections going back to 1932, Fianna Fail had never won less than 39 percent and had always been the largest party in the Dail.
“The political landscape of Ireland is completely and utterly redrawn,” said Roger Jupp, the chairman of Millward Brown Lansdowne, which conducted an exit poll.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who resigned his seat in the British parliament to run for the Dail, was among the winners.
The Green Party, which had six seats in the Dail and was Fianna Fail’s junior partner in government, was in danger of losing them all.
While most seats remained undecided, Fine Gael was coy about whether it would pursue a coalition with Labour, as many expect, or try to build a coalition with a group of independents.
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 campaign. 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.
The new government, like the last, will be constrained by the terms negotiated for the $92 billion credit line from the European Central Bank and the IMF. The loan is contingent on Ireland cutting $20.6 billion from its deficit spending over the coming four years.
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 nationalized banks shoulder some of the losses.
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