By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny set Feb. 26 as the date for parliamentary elections on Wednesday, highlighting the economic recovery his government has overseen as he kicked off campaigning for what promises to be a tight contest.
Kenny's conservative Fine Gael party is ahead in the polls but, even with the support of current junior coalition partner Labour, remains a few percentage points short of a majority.
Failure to close that gap may usher in a period of relative political instability with a minority government, a larger coalition including independent deputies or fresh elections all possible outcomes.
"Five years ago Ireland was on the verge of collapse and Ireland's international reputation was in tatters," Kenny, who is aiming to become Fine Gael's first two-time prime minister, said in a video on Twitter, announcing the election date.
"Five years on we still have many challenges but our public finances are back on track, our economy is growing again, faster than any other country in the EU, and there is no more bailout. This election is about who will keep this recovery going."
Kenny is hoping voters will give him the credit for leading Ireland out of an international bailout mid-way through his five-year term, when a quicker and stronger recovery than in many other parts of Europe took hold.
But while many voters have benefited, others are still struggling with the lasting effects of the 2008 financial crisis and a brutal seven-year austerity program, and the coalition's opponents are likely to focus their campaigns on that disparity.
According to recent polls, Fine Gael has around 30 percent of votes, with leftist challenger Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail battling it out for second place on or just below 20 percent and Labour stuck at or below 10 percent.
That would leave Fine Gael and Labour more than 10 seats short of the 80 needed to form a majority in parliament.
(editing by John Stonestreet)