DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland could be on course for a historic alliance between age-old foes — the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail parties — as partial election results Saturday revealed strong voter rejection of the existing coalition government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Kenny said he was surprised by the unexpectedly strong losses for his centrist Fine Gael and even heavier blows for his left-wing partner, Labour. "Democracy can be very exciting but it's merciless," he said.
Yet Ireland's soft-spoken leader vowed to remain in office atop a new coalition and would seek new allies with the sole aim of creating "as stable a government as can be created." He declined to rule out a historic partnership with Fianna Fail, which has never shared power with Fine Gael since their founders took opposite sides in Ireland's civil war 94 years ago.
With all 40 of Ireland's constituencies reporting official first-round results, Fine Gael attracted 25.5 percent of first-preference votes in Friday's election, down 10.6 points from the last election in 2011.
Many rounds of ballot counting remain under Ireland's complex system of proportional representation. Declared winners for all 158 seats in Ireland's parliament were expected by Monday.
Fianna Fail — which faced political ruin in 2011 after leading the country to the brink of bankruptcy and a humiliating international bailout — mounted an unexpectedly strong comeback. The party took 24.3 percent of first-preference votes and appeared poised to double its parliamentary seats at the expense of Fine Gael and Labour. The latter retained just 6.6 percent support, off 12.8 points from 2011.
Finishing a somewhat lackluster third was the nationalist Sinn Fein, a hard-left critic of the government's painful but broadly successful pursuit of austerity. Sinn Fein won 13.8 percent support as it sought to capitalize on voter discontent over an era of tax hikes, spending cuts and pruned wages that Ireland is only starting to leave behind.
But protest votes against austerity flew in myriad directions to a half-dozen other small parties and independents.
With Fine Gael and Fianna Fail now nearly even in public support, the question is who can negotiate an alliance sufficient to hold a parliamentary majority: Kenny or Fianna Fail chief Micheal Martin.
Martin, like Kenny, remained coy on the prospect of forging an alliance. But he said voters wanted a new government, so he intended to nominate himself as prime minister when the new parliament convenes March 10.
"We're committed to doing our best by the country and ensuring that the country gets a good government," Martin said. "But it will take time."
Martin said any successful coalition negotiation "has to be very much focused on the issues and on policies, and not just on numbers."
Ireland's former Fianna Fail prime minister, Bertie Ahern, forecast that neither Kenny nor Martin would win majority backing March 10. Ahern, renowned as the savviest coalition negotiator of his generation, said he expected no deal until well after Ireland's national holiday, St. Patrick's Day, on March 17.
Dismissing the idea of a long-term deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, Ahern quipped that Ireland likely faced a "kaleidoscope coalition" dependent on independent lawmakers and erratic small parties that would be lucky to survive even a year.
Most analysts forecast that Fine Gael would win around 50 seats, versus the 76 it won five years ago, while Fianna Fail should win more than 40, at least doubling its 2011 total of 20.
A parliamentary majority requires at least 79 lawmakers, although stable Irish governments typically require a larger cushion of support.
If Ireland's two political heavyweights cannot negotiate a pact, Fine Gael or Fianna Fail could seek support from a dizzying array of small parties and independents on target for election as results kept trickling in Saturday night and Sunday across this nation of 4.6 million.
Both parties have ruled out including Sinn Fein in the next government, citing its links to the Irish Republican Army, even though that underground group has observed a cease-fire since 1997. Both Kenny and Martin saved their sharpest campaign attacks for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, questioning his own IRA record and alleged involvement in cover-ups of unsolved crimes.
Ironically, Fine Gael's and Fianna Fail's shared hostility to Sinn Fein could emerge as the greatest issue barring any serious consideration of a so-called "Fine Fail" government.
Senior lawmakers from both establishment parties noted that if they both went into government at the same time, Sinn Fein would be left to dominate the opposition benches and position itself to become the voters' next choice for power.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar said he didn't want Fine Gael to share power with Fianna Fail "just because the numbers add up." He expressed distrust of Fianna Fail, warned that such a partnership would be unstable and prone to breakdowns, and "would open the door to a Sinn Fein government in a very short time."
National turnout was 65.2 percent, down nearly 5 points from 2011.
The results from Friday's election will take at least two days to calculate because Ireland uses a complex electoral system designed to ensure that smaller parties and independents win seats. Each of Ireland's 40 districts elects three to five lawmakers each.
Voters are permitted to rate all candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference. This means electoral officials must tabulate results in several laborious rounds, transferring lower-preference votes from victorious or eliminated candidates to those still in contention for remaining seats.
One other mix-up and delay reflected the dynastic, often nepotistic nature of Irish politics.
In County Kerry, officials struggled to confirm even the first-preference results after a marathon 14-hour count — because two leading candidates, Danny and Michael Healy-Rae, are brothers and ballot counters accidentally scrambled their vote counts. Tempers frayed as a late-night recount was ordered.
With midnight approaching, Michael Healy-Rae finally was declared Kerry's first winner. Boisterous supporters lifted the lawmaker into the air, his trademark farmer's cap somehow staying on his head, as they sang his campaign song: "Make your vote and pray, that he goes all the way! He's flat to the mat with his black cap, and there's no time for tae (tea)."