DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland's new parliament overwhelmingly rejected both Prime Minister Enda Kenny and his main rival in votes to select the next government leader Thursday, creating a political vacuum that may take weeks of difficult coalition talks to fill.
Kenny, Ireland's leader since 2011, said he would resign from his position Thursday night, after which the head of state, President Michael D. Higgins, would immediately reappoint him as caretaker prime minister.
"Let me assure the Irish people that the government remains in place and that I and my Cabinet colleagues will continue to work hard in the interests of the country and the people," Kenny told lawmakers.
At risk in any protracted stalemate is Ireland's impressive economic rebound from its 2010 bailout, which was delivered by a Kenny-led government that, until voters cast their ballots Feb. 26, enjoyed the biggest parliamentary majority in Irish history.
As lawmakers convened Thursday, government statisticians announced that Ireland had cemented its status as Europe's most rapidly expanding economy with growth rates last experienced in 2000.
While Kenny's Fine Gael remains the largest party, with 50 lawmakers in the 158-seat parliament, it no longer has a coalition partner strong enough to deliver a majority after left-wing voters infuriated by government austerity measures reduced his Labour Party ally to just seven lawmakers.
Those 57 lawmakers backed Kenny, but 94 rejected him as "Taoiseach," the formal Gaelic title for leader. Minutes later, lawmakers dealt an even stronger rebuke to Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. He received 43 votes, all from his own party, while 108 said no.
Irish nationalist Sinn Fein's 23 lawmakers voted for their own leader, Gerry Adams, who received no support from others.
Before the votes, lawmakers from other camps appealed to Kenny and Martin to forge an unprecedented partnership between their center-ground parties, which trace their origins to the opposite sides of Ireland's 1922-23 civil war. They have never shared power in the decades since.
Coalitions have governed Ireland since 1989. This is the first time that the two heavyweights of political life, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, have been unable to form a numerically stable coalition with anyone but each other.
If Kenny and Martin cannot forge an agreement that delivers stable government, a second election would follow.
One of the parliament's most colorful newly elected independents, County Kerry pub owner Danny Healy-Rae, said their partnership was inevitable and accused them both of wasting the parliament's time. Before the vote, he played the accordion outside parliament as supporters danced jigs in the street.
Ireland's parliament might not convene again until early April following the year's two most politically charged events on the Irish calendar, St. Patrick's Day and Easter. The latter holiday this year involves large-scale state commemorations of the 100th anniversary of Dublin's Easter Rising rebellion against British rule.