Irish Elect Lawmakers in Key Test for Largest, Smallest Parties

Despite relentless rain, voters turned out in force Friday to elect Ireland's next parliament, a contest that could place Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his Fianna Fail party in a position of strength achieved only once before in Irish history.

Ahern, who has led Ireland through five years of double-digit economic growth, declined to make predictions as he voted in his native Drumcondra, north Dublin. Ballots in most districts wouldn't be counted until Saturday, with full results expected in the evening.

But all the polls in the three-week campaign forecast Ahern's Fianna Fail will build on the 77 seats it won in the 166-seat parliament in 1997, when Ahern rose to power atop a coalition government that delivered tax cuts and big boosts in spending.

And results announced early Saturday in three legislative districts, where computerized voting booths were utilized, backed that projected trend. Fianna Fail won six of 12 seats in the suburban Dublin districts of Dublin West, Dublin North and County Meath, a gain of one seat from 1997.

With seven more seats, Fianna Fail would have enough lawmakers to form a one-party majority government for the second time. Fianna Fail's 1977 victory was the only time any party had reached that plateau since Ireland's independence from Britain in 1922. All other governments have been coalitions or minority Fianna Fail administrations.

Michael Gallagher, professor of politics at Trinity College Dublin, said if Fianna Fail does manage to net around half of votes as some polls forecast, "then we would be looking at a tidal wave of 1977 proportions."

A Fianna Fail victory would be welcomed by the markets, which like Ahern's pro-business, tax-cutting agenda. Since the mid-1990s, multinational corporations have helped make this once-impoverished backwater Europe's preferred base for many computer, communications and pharmaceutical firms.

Ahern's determination to keep tax on foreign businesses much lower than European rivals is a sore point with his European Union partners, who accuse Ireland of poaching investors. Ireland's soaring employment and investment has meant an unprecedented tax intake, which gave Ahern the luxury of cutting taxes while raising government spending an average 15 percent each year.

Michael Noonan insisted his Fine Gael party would shock the pundits and pollsters. He said the Fianna Fail-led government had been lucky, not competent, but was now about to throw Ireland's budget back into deficit. He said the economy, now near a standstill in growth in line with the global slowdown, needed more disciplined management.

Even as Dublin voters made their way under umbrellas to polling stations in schools and church halls, Ireland's grassroots courts of public opinion — the corner-shop bookmakers — were taking bets on the outcome.

Paddy Power, the largest betting chain, had Ahern as an incredible 1-to-100 favorite to stay in office, Noonan at damning odds of 33 to 1.

The bookies also offered odds on the likely shape of the next government, which can be formed only after the new parliament convenes June 6 to elect a prime minister. A Fianna Fail majority government was favorite, while a resumption of the outgoing government — Fianna Fail propped up by a fiscally conservative party, the Progressive Democrats — was rated second-most likely.

The most eagerly watched subplot in Friday's vote was an expected breakthrough by Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party.

Sinn Fein, rooted in the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland, never stood a chance of building support south of the border during the IRA's 27-year campaign of murder and mayhem.

But the IRA cease-fire has allowed Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams open-field running in a country where other left-wing parties are declining. Sinn Fein now has only one seat but is contending for several more.

Ahern has rejected the possibility of forming a government that includes Sinn Fein. But Adams insists he'd cut a deal if Sinn Fein could provide Fianna Fail the needed seats for a majority.