Irish voters looked certain Friday to oust their government in parliamentary elections dominated by the collapse of a once-booming economy and the widely hated international bailout that followed.
The eurozone country’s traditional ruling party, Fianna Fail, is expected to crash to defeat, making Prime Minister Brian Cowen’s government the first to fall victim to the eurozone debt crisis. “They’re getting a good kicking, and they deserve it,” said Brendan Buckley, a 47-year-old civil servant, at a polling station in north Dublin. “I give them a lot of blame for what happened, as well as the international recession. Their tactics and policies have been atrocious. They are getting their comeuppance now.” The main opposition Fine Gael party has capitalised on the anger and is leading the polls with 38-40 percent, compared with Fianna Fail’s 15 percent. Fine Gael’s leader, 59-year-old former teacher Enda Kenny, is set to become taoiseach, or prime minister, with a promise to “get Ireland working” and to renegotiate the terms of its massive debts. In November, Ireland was forced to go cap in hand to the European Union and International Monetary Fund for an 85-billion-euro ($115-billion) bailout after a debt crisis centred on the banks threatened to spiral out of control. It was the second eurozone nation after Greece to seek help and the deal was widely viewed as a humiliation, just three years after Ireland was the envy of the world for the strength of its “Celtic Tiger” economy. “It is absolutely appalling what has been happening. Our politics needs a radical change,” said Nino Besagni, 77, as he voted for the Labour party. Some 3.1 million people were eligible to vote Friday, and early indications pointed to a high turnout. Polling stations closed at 10:00 pm (2200 GMT) but the outcome will not become clear until late Saturday or Sunday. Initial exit polls were expected at around 8 am (0800 GMT) on Saturday. Opinion polls suggest Fine Gael will not win a majority in the 166-seat Dail, or lower house of parliament, and may have to form a coalition with Labour, which is on 18 percent support. Kenny, who voted in Mayo in western Ireland with his daughter Aoibhinn, a first-time voter, has promised to “hit the ground running” if he takes office. He has already visited Brussels and Berlin to discuss amending the bailout terms, notably the “punitive” 5.8 percent interest rate and the cost of restructuring Ireland’s banks. The EU has indicated it might review the deal, but Dublin is under pressure to cut its ultra-low 12.5 percent corporate tax rate in return — a rate Kenny says is of “fundamental importance” to Ireland’s economy. Polls show that 82 percent of voters want the bailout renegotiated, but more than half of these accept that it will not be — and many cannot see a way out. “The politicians are ignoring the elephant in the room. We cannot pay this. There’s not enough people working in this country,” said teacher Niamh O’Connor, 50, as she cast her vote for Labour. Meanwhile, Fianna Fail is struggling to avoid an electoral wipeout after 14 years in power, as newspapers demanded punishment for the country’s woes. “Your Day of Revenge — Kick Them in the Ballots”, headlined the Irish Daily Star, while the Irish Sun said: “Downfail. It’s time to dump this rotten lot.” Fianna Fail is led by ex-foreign minister Micheal Martin, who took over in January after Cowen quit over his handling of the economic crisis. Cowen is not standing for re-election. Voter Jeff Buckley, 54, is one of those who has abandoned Fianna Fail to back Fine Gael, but he would like to have seen his countrymen react to their predicament with more than a change of government. “If this was Greece, I think people would be out on the streets burning the place down, but we’re more laid back here, unfortunately,” he said.