By William James and Conor Humphries
Ireland‘s uneven recovery took centre stage on Friday as voters cast ballots in a national election, torn between the urge to oust a government that has overseen years of austerity and fears that political instability might derail the rebound.
Framed by a debate over how to distribute the profits of an economic growth surge since the country took a sovereign bailout in 2010, the election is unlikely to produce a clear winner, polls suggest.
It could leave the two biggest parties facing a choice between teaming up in an unprecedented and potentially unstable alliance or casting the country into political limbo.
The outcome will hinge on the extent to which Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s pledge to “keep the recovery going” — which opinion polls suggest has failed to inspire the electorate — manages to sway undecided voters.
“The last cent was just milked from us… so I would like to see a change,” said Geraldine Carragher, a teacher voting in central Dublin who switched from junior coalition partner Labour five years ago to a newly formed centre-left rival in protest at government cutbacks.
Others were more forgiving, saying they would back the government to avoid the instability of a hung parliament and the growing influence of the hard left.
“Given the mess the economy was in they have done OK,” said Neil, a 49 year old construction professional after voting, also in Dublin, for what he described as the establishment parties.
“I don’t see what the alternative is and it would concern me it’s going to be so tight.”
Polls suggest current junior coalition partner Labour’s support has collapsed, while Kenny’s Fine Gael have let a wide lead slip. Their combined support has dipped to 33 to 37 percent in polls.
That compares with the 41 to 42 percent Finance Minister Michael Noonan believes they need to form a government, likely with the help of independent candidates or smaller parties.
Exit polls published at 0700 GMT on Saturday will give the first indication of whether Kenny’s party and Labour have done enough to hold on to power.
Irish bond yields were slightly higher on Friday on concerns the government would be ousted, although they remained close to record lows.
If there is no late shift in voter intentions, one way to break any deadlock could be a tradition-breaking alliance between Fine Gael and its centre-right rivals Fianna Fail. But these heirs to opposing sides in a civil war almost a century ago have so far shown no appetite to team up this time around.
Vote counting begins on Saturday, with the first of 157 seats declared in the early afternoon and the final winners potentially not decided until early next week.
That may mark the beginning not the end, however, of uncertainty over the likely shape of the government.
A hung parliament would echo recent election experiences in Portugal and Spain, where anger at austerity, perceptions of rising social inequality and mistrust of established political elites led to indecisive outcomes.
“I think that the traditional parties will survive a little better than they have done in those countries, but as in those countries after the election … I think we will see uncertainty here,” said Michael Marsh, a professor of politics at Trinity College Dublin.
An unstable government could slow Ireland‘s response to a possible “Out” vote in an EU membership referendum in neighbour and major trade partner Britain on June 23.
Uncertainty about the election and Britain’s referendum pushed the gap between Irish and French bond yields to its widest in eight months on Tuesday, although Ireland is still able to borrow at near record-low costs