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History-making Irish vote shot through with anger

Ireland holds historic elections this week — a ballot that could devastate the party blamed for the country's dramatic economic reverse and dump it from office after dominating Irish politics for almost 80 years.

The ruling Fianna Fail party faces defeat in Friday's poll as voters vent their anger over Ireland's rapid decline from economic miracle into debt-ridden disaster. The country has been forced to accept a multibillion rescue deal from European neighbors and the International Monetary Fund.

Karen Holland, 29, stood with her arms crossed defiantly outside Paddy's pub in Galway, on Ireland's west coast, as she described struggling to raise her four children on the salary brought home by her husband, a security guard.

For Holland, the politicians had it coming. "They should have let the banks go down," she said, referring to the government's fateful decision to guarantee debts held by some of its biggest banks with public money. "They let us go down instead."

Holland's anger has found echoes across the country, and some observers predict this week's vote has the potential for revolutionary change.

"The word I'd use here is 'seismic,'" said Noel Whelan, a staunch critic of the government's handling of the crisis and commentator for the Irish Times. "We're going to see next weekend a political earthquake in Ireland."

Investors are watching for aftershocks in London, Paris, and Berlin.

European banks have billions tied up in Ireland's troubled financial sector. The current government has guaranteed their money, but Fine Gael — the party tipped to take over from its longtime rival — has said that it is unconscionable "for taxpayers to be asked to beggar themselves to make massive profits for speculators."

Fine Gael has raised the prospect of forcing some senior creditors to take a cut on their investments, and the possibility of a new dose of red ink being splashed across European balance sheets has spooked the markets at a time when concern persists over the financial health of countries such as Greece and Portugal.

Earlier this month, credit rating agency Moody's downgraded the creditworthiness of six major Irish banks as politicians argued whether or when to inject more cash.

Ireland's 4.6 million people have their own worries. The one-time Celtic Tiger economy was one of the first victims of the Great Recession. Its government quickly guaranteed the debts racked up by its over-stretched banks — a promise which turned into political poison.

Unemployment has tripled in three years to 13.4 percent, Ireland's welfare system is shriveling away and taxes have gone up in a bid to fight a deficit estimated at more than one third of the country's $204.1 billion GDP.

The election could claim as many half of the legislators in Ireland's 166-seat lower house, polls suggest. Recent surveys show the opposition Fine Gael is within reach of a parliamentary majority in the Dail Eireann — a potential historic upset for Fianna Fail, the party that has won the most seats in every election since the party first went into government in 1932.

Ireland's crisis has already seen Prime Minister Brian Cowen announce he will quit after the poll. He won't stand in the election.

Even if it falls short of a majority, Fine Gael — a center-right political party — is still expected to rule with the help of independents or the left-leaning Labour, which has also seen a huge jump in support. Fianna Fail, seen as more centrist than its rival, has been pushed into third place in most recent polls.

The rhetoric surrounding the electoral campaign has some worried. Editorials grumble darkly about resisting German domination and "burning the bondholders," reflections of the concern here that investors in Europe — and particularly Germany — are making money off the Irish people's misery.

A recent poll showed that 84 percent of the population backed renegotiating terms with bondholders, though it isn't considered a likely prospect.

The new government can't push too hard against the European Central Bank, which, along with the International Monetary Fund, extended €67.5 billion in support of the Ireland's nearly bankrupt economy in November, said Frank Barry, a professor at Trinity College Dublin's business school.

"We have no other source of funds, and everybody understands that," he said.

In Galway, students at the city's National University of Ireland seemed resigned to years of continued sacrifice. Talk of getting a new deal from Europe and the IMF was "totally unrealistic," said Mary Walsh, a 26-year-old science student. "Our hands are tied," she said. "We'll have to repay the money."

Across the rain-streaked campus, professor Chris Curtin of the School of Political Science and Sociology says few in Ireland are excited about the election — despite the changes it promises for the country's leadership.

"The general mass of the population is being hammered into the ground," he said, calling the international bailout "a humiliation." He, like other political watchers, said there'd be very little room for a renegotiating of its terms.

The election could eventually result in reforms of political institutions found wanting during the debt crisis. Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael call for a job stimulus, the scrapping of the Irish parliament's upper house, the Seanad, and plans to tackle negative home equity.

Constitutional reform, a shake up of the civil service and a move away from Ireland's patronage-dominated election system are also promised.

But Curtin said any hope for a better future was buried under the weight of the country's crushing debt.

Voters aren't even worrying whether there's light at the end of the tunnel, Curtin joked, because they're wondering: "Can we find the tunnel? Is there even a tunnel?"