Ireland’s 3.1m voters go to the polls on Thursday in what looks set to be the closest general election in years.
In a rollercoaster campaign, the fortunes of the two main parties – the populist rivals Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – have fluctuated, with the result that no one can predict with certainty what government combination will be thrown up when ballots are counted and the complicated system of distributing successful candidates’ surplus votes is completed.
If after the count it is still unclear what shape the next government will take, the next test will be whether either Bertie Ahern, the Fianna Fáil prime minister, or Enda Kenny, Fine Gael leader, can secure enough support to be elected taoiseach, or prime minister.
Mr Ahern launched the campaign this month telling voters they had a “clear choice”, implicitly acknowledging that the conservative Fine Gael party and Labour, perhaps with the support of the Greens, may be able to form an alternative government.
Such an outcome is still possible. But after Monday’s poll in the Irish Times, which showed Fianna Fáil on 41 per cent of the national vote, Fine Gael on 27 per cent and Labour on 10 per cent, most analysts believe the alternative coalition will be short of seats to thwart Mr Ahern’s ambitions to win a record third successive term.
The poll suggests Fianna Fáil could form one of four governments – either with the right of centre Progressive Democrats, its existing partners; as a minority government with the PDs, and the backing of independents; in coalition with Sinn Féin and perhaps the Greens: or with Labour.
Early in the campaign, Dermot Ahern, the Fianna Fáil foreign minister, made a direct appeal to Labour voters warning that “the only way to protect traditional labour values is to switch to Fianna Fáil,” arguing that a vote for Labour was in fact a vote for Enda Kenny.
Ministers have sought to sow doubts about Labour real intentions, alluding to the possibility that “in the national interest” Labour would abandon its Fine Gael partners, once it was clear Fine Gael and Labour did not have enough seats to form a government.
Mr Ahern said on Tuesday: “I think the phrase – in the best interests of the country – is one you will hear a lot of from people who at the moment are implacably opposed to doing business with us.”
Fine Gael is doing its own bit of scaremongering. Mr Kenny told supporters on Tuesday it was “now very clear a vote for Fianna Fáil may well be a vote for a government kept in office by the Sinn Féin.”
This tactic of queering the pitch of political rivals is best exemplified by Michael McDowell, leader of the PDs, who in 2002 when it looked like Fianna Fáil might emerge with an outright majority used the slogan “single party government – no thanks”.