Voting begins in Ireland's election, for a few

AP News
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Posted: Feb 23, 2011 11:20 AM
Voting begins in Ireland's election, for a few

Leaders of Ireland's political parties dashed around the country Wednesday to curry favor with undecided voters two days before a national election, with the opposition Fine Gael party still way ahead in the opinion polls.

It was decision time for fewer than 1,000 voters on a few small islands, including Arranmore, Inishboffin and Inishfree off the northwest coast. The early voting took place to be sure that rough weather won't prevent the ballot boxes from getting to the counting center this weekend, a precaution which some think is out of date.

The national campaign was winding down, with broadcast coverage of politics stopping at 2 p.m. (1400 GMT) Thursday, and the vote-counting starting Saturday morning.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, confident of leading the next government, pledged to start immediately after the election to tackle the massive problems flowing from the collapse of Ireland's banks.

"Ireland urgently needs to get back to work, " Kenny said, mindful of the nation's 13.4 percent jobless rate.

Starting the day in Dublin, Kenny highlighted 25 ideas including tax cuts, abolishing some public bodies and taking away official cars from government ministers, who would rely on a car pool instead.

On Arranmore, where 523 voters are registered, the manager of the local cooperative was unhappy about voting early.

"Really and truly, that shouldn't happen in this day and age," said Noreen Muldowney, who noted that the island is just five minutes from the mainland by passenger boat. "The campaign is still ongoing and we've voted already."

In a special election last year, she said, some islanders had voted for a candidate who abruptly withdrew before people on the mainland voted. The early vote meant that about 30 college students wouldn't be able to get home to vote in the middle of the week, she said in a telephone interview.

The big question about the next government is whether Fine Gael's support, hovering near 40 percent in various polls, will be enough to allow it to run a single-party government. If not, Fine Gael is likely to form a coalition with the second-place finisher, likely the Labour Party.

Kenny and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore seemed on friendly terms Tuesday night in the last televised leaders debate of the campaign. Both attacked Micheal Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail, the party which governed as Ireland's economy sank.

Fianna Fail, which won the most seats in every Irish election since 1932, stands to finish third this time, the polls suggest.

Fine Gael's "five-point plan," endlessly cited by Kenny during the campaign, as "full of black holes, ill-thought out ideas and poll-tested policies that are designed to win votes, and not solve the serious problems we face today," Martin said Wednesday.

Commentators are divided on whether Fine Gael is in position to rule by itself, and it is hard to predict how the percentage of the popular vote will translate into seats in the Dail, the lower house of parliament, where it take 84 seats for a majority.

Fianna Fail had a bit more than 50 percent of the popular vote when it won 84 seats _ the most ever won by an Irish party _ in 1977. Fine Gael's best result was 70 seats in 1982 on 39 percent of the vote.