In gloomy times, Irish voters ripe for change

AP News
Posted: Feb 24, 2011 11:08 AM
In gloomy times, Irish voters ripe for change

Unemployment is above 13 percent, Irish taxpayers have reluctantly become bank owners, the value of the family home has plummeted and the nation is in hock to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

No wonder every party campaigning in Ireland's national election is promising change.

Ireland's 3.1 million voters make their choices on Friday, with every poll pointing to a new government led by Fine Gael, until now the perennial runner-up in Irish elections. The big question is whether Fine Gael will need a coalition partner, most likely the Labour Party.

Asked what she hoped for from this election, voter Aoife McCardle just sighed.

"Oh God, very little. I have very little hope. I want change I suppose," said McCardle, who remains a loyal Labour voter.

John Healy, out doing errands in central Dublin, said he wanted "a change of parties _ they couldn't do a worse job."

That sentiment weighs heavily against Fianna Fail, the party that led the government through the boom years of the Celtic Tiger economy of 1994-2007 and into the collapse of the property bubble and the fall of the nation's banks.

The government, and thus the taxpayers, now control the Anglo Irish Bank, the Irish Nationwide and EBS building societies. The government also holds stakes in the Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks.

Then Ireland suffered the humiliation of a massive bailout, a euro67.5 billion ($92 billion) credit line from the European Central Bank and the IMF. The 2010 budget deficit was a record 32 percent of gross domestic product and the country was left with 2,800 housing developments that were not fully completed _ some 10,000 unfinished houses.

Ireland's plight has inspired a lively contest with a record 566 candidates including 179 independents for the 166 seats in Ireland's lower house in parliament, the Dail. Nearly 49,000 people have rushed to register to vote in recent weeks.

A poll published Thursday in the Irish Independent showed Fine Gael well ahead of other parties in being trusted to sort out public finances, create jobs and improve the health system. Labour ranked second in each category.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny campaigned in northwestern Ireland on Thursday, urging voters to "turn your anger into action."

Fine Gael has held a comfortable lead throughout the campaign with support nearing 40 percent, large enough to inspire speculation it might even win the 84 seats needed for a majority in the Dail.

Labour has bumping along at around 20 percent, ahead of Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein, the Northern Ireland-based party that supported the Irish Republican Army, is expected to gain seats.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore was out campaigning in Dublin, repeating his mantra that the nation needs "a fair and balanced government" _ that is, one including his party.

A single-party Fine Gael government, he said, would impose a tax on graduates, cut child benefits and bring in "lots of stealth taxes."

While Fianna Fail is expected to do poorly, party leader Micheal Martin predicted the party would win at least one seat in each of Ireland's 43 constituencies. Analysts think a total in the teens is more likely, which would be the party's worst result ever.

Tellingly, Fianna Fail fielded only 75 candidates, giving up in advance on winning a majority in the Dail; 18 of its incumbents also decided not to run.

Fianna Fail won't get any help from taxi driver Michael Reid, waiting in line near the River Liffey.

"They lost me about three years ago, spending money indiscriminately and wasting it," Reid said. His hope for the election _ "a lot of change" _ preferably with left-leaning independents in coalition with Fine Gael.

Gilmore's press conference spilled into the street, blocking a street sweeper, so the Labour leader stuck his head into the cab in pursuit of a vote. He got it.

"We need change," said sweeper driver Thomas Daily, "but we don't need to kill ordinary people."