Irish economy frames voter debate as election kicks off

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 25, 2016 7:37 PM

By William James and Conor Humphries

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's uneven economic recovery took center stage on Friday as voters cast ballots in a national election, torn between the urge to oust a government that has overseen years of austerity and fears that political instability might derail the rebound.

Framed by a debate over how to distribute the profits of a surge in economic growth since the country took a sovereign bailout in 2010, the election is unlikely to produce a clear winner, polls suggest.

It could leave the two biggest parties - Prime Minister Enda Kenny's center-right Fine Gael and center-right Fianna Fail - facing a choice between forging an unprecedented and potentially unstable alliance or casting Ireland into political limbo.

The outcome will hinge on the extent to which Kenny's pledge to "keep the recovery going" -- which opinion polls suggest has failed to inspire the electorate -- manages to sway undecided voters.

"The last cent was just milked from us ... so I would like to see a change," said Geraldine Carragher, a teacher who cast her ballot in central Dublin for a new center-left party in protest over government spending cuts after voting in the last election in 2011 for Labour, the current junior coalition party.

Some other voters were more forgiving, saying they would back the government to avoid the instability of a hung parliament and the growing influence of the hard left.

"Given the mess the economy was in they have done OK," said Neil, a 49-year-old construction professional after voting, also in Dublin, for what he described as the establishment parties.

"I don't see what the alternative is and it would concern me it's going to be so tight."

Polls suggest Labour's support has collapsed, while Fine Gael has let a wide lead slip. Their combined support has dipped to 33 to 37 percent in the opinion polls.

That compares with the 41 to 42 percent Finance Minister Michael Noonan believes they need to form a government, likely with the help of independent candidates or smaller parties.

Opinion polls have indicated that left-wing nationalists Sinn Fein may come close to doubling the 10 percent support they received in 2011, but the other major parties have ruled out joining them in government.

Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary group, was embarrassed on election day by the sentencing of a close ally of party leader Gerry Adams to 18 months in jail for tax evasion.

EXIT POLLS

Exit polls due to be published at 0700 GMT on Saturday will give the first indication of whether the Fine Gael-Labour coalition can hold on to power.

Early turnout was steady, according to national broadcaster RTE, and approached 20 percent in most areas by 1300 GMT. Final turnout in the 2011 election totaled 70 percent nationwide.

Irish bond yields were slightly higher on Friday on concerns the government would be ousted, although they remained close to record lows.

If there is no late shift in voter intentions, one way to break any deadlock could be a tradition-breaking alliance between historic rivals Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. But these heirs to opposing sides in a civil war almost a century ago have so far shown no appetite to team up this time around.

Vote counting begins on Saturday, with the first of 157 seats declared in the early afternoon and the final winners potentially not decided until early next week. But that may mark the start, not the end, of the political uncertainty.

A hung parliament would echo recent election experiences in Portugal and Spain, where anger at austerity, perceptions of rising social inequality and mistrust of established political elites led to indecisive outcomes.

"I think the traditional parties will survive a little better than they have done in those countries, but as in those countries after the election ... I think we will see uncertainty here," said Michael Marsh, a professor of politics at Trinity College Dublin.

An unstable government could slow Ireland's response to a possible "Out" vote in an EU membership referendum in neighbor and major trade partner Britain on June 23.

(Additional reporting by Georgina Cooper, John Geddie and Padraic Halpin; Editing by Gareth Jones)