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Irish voters set to oust government over crisis

Irish Fianna Fail party expected to lose long term edge in parliament due to financial crisis

AFP , Thursday 24 Feb 2011
Ireland
Presiding officer Hugh O'Donnell and police officer Ronan McNamara remove the ballot box after votes were cast on the island of Inishfree, Ireland, Wednesday, (Reuters).
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Irish voters are set to turf out the government in elections Friday, as anger over the economic crisis and an onerous bailout make Dublin the first administration to be felled by the EU debt crisis.

The Fianna Fail party of Prime Minister Brian Cowen, which has ruled Ireland for 21 of the last 24 years, is expected to lose most of its seats in the Dail (parliament) as the main opposition Fine Gael surges to power.

"We're going to tell them to take their bailout and shove it," said Eoghan, a man in his 20s, as he angrily surveyed the state of his country over a pint of stout in a Dublin pub.

Ireland is struggling with unemployment and mountains of debt after a crisis caused when a property bubble burst, toppling the country's banks and forcing Dublin to join fellow eurozone nation Greece and ask for international help.

In November, Ireland agreed an 85-billion-euro ($115-billion) bailout with the European Union and International Monetary Fund -- a move widely viewed as a humiliation and blamed squarely on Cowen and Fianna Fail.

Riding the wave of anger, the centre-right Fine Gael is predicted to win more than 70 seats in the 166-member Dail on Friday, with leader Enda Kenny viewed by the bookmakers as certain to be Taoiseach, or premier.

But it remains unclear whether the party will win enough support to govern alone after 14 years in opposition.

A Red C poll of 1,500 people for bookmakers Paddy Power Wednesday put Fine Gael on 40 percent of the vote for the first time, but Kenny told his party he did not want "any sense of any complacency".

If it needs a partner, Fine Gael is likely to form a coalition, as it has in the past, with the centre-left Labour party, which is polling at 18 percent.

Red C found 33 percent of voters would prefer a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said this week that despite the differences aired in the campaign, there was "common ground" between the two parties.

Meanwhile Kenny's personal ratings have soared -- up 12 points in the past three weeks to 35 percent -- despite accusations that the 59-year-old former teacher is boring and has a poor grasp of policy.

Such is his determination to stay on message that one person on Twitter devised a drinking game during a leaders' TV debate this week based on the number of times Kenny mentioned his five-point plan.

But Fine Gael's success owes the most to the rage among many of Ireland's 3.1 million voters against the government for the state of the economy.

Mothers are forced to watch their children emigrate to find work, employees are taking pay cuts and mortgage-holders are struggling to pay for houses that are worth half what they sold for three years ago.

"Five years ago we were one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, but where's it all gone?" asked an outraged Dublin taxi driver, who is switching from a lifetime of voting for Fianna Fail to back Fine Gael on Friday.

Fianna Fail -- which is lead by former foreign minister Micheal Martin after Cowen quit last month -- is currently polling at just 15 percent, suggesting they will win a paltry 20 seats, down from 77 at the last election.

Cowen himself will not be standing for the Dail again.

Amid polls showing 82 percent of voters want to renegotiate the bailout, all the main parties have promised to do amend the deal and Kenny has already visited Brussels and Berlin to discuss the "punitive" rate of interest.

EU officials have said there is some room for manoeuvre, but the would-be prime minister admitted Ireland has a long way to go.

"You are not going to walk into a situation on February 26 where suddenly the sun shines on everybody and the warmth is on our backs economically -- that's not the case," Kenny said.

More than 500 candidates are competing in 43 constituencies for 165 seats, which voters choose by single transferable vote, a system of proportional representation which will not yield a result until at least Saturday.

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