DUBLIN – Ireland's ruling Fianna Fail party faced its worst defeat in nearly 80 years as a tidal wave of voter anger about the country being nearly pushed to bankruptcy swept an opposition party to the brink of power Saturday.
Fine Gael polled 36.1 percent support with the first round of counting completed in all 43 constituencies, a figure that would put it in power but without a majority of seats in the Dail, the lower house of parliament. Party leader Enda Kenny, destined to become prime minister, pledged to move quickly to form a government.
Labour, Fine Gael's possible coalition partner, was running second at 19 percent while Fianna Fail polled a historic low of 17 percent. The actual vote share matched the figure in an exit poll released an hour before the count started.
Irish voters punished Fianna Fail for 13 percent unemployment, tax hikes, wage cuts and a humiliating bailout that Ireland had to accept from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. In elections going back to 1932, Fianna Fail had never won less than 39 percent and had always been the largest party in the Dail.
"The political landscape of Ireland is completely and utterly redrawn," said Roger Jupp, the chairman of Millward Brown Lansdowne, which conducted the exit poll for RTE.
Official results came slower. By early Sunday, 45 seats had been won by Fine Gael, 26 by Labour, nine by Fianna Fail, 10 by Sinn Fein and 12 by smaller parties and independents.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who resigned his seat in the British parliament to run for the Dail, was among the winners.
The Green Party, which had six seats in the Dail and was Fianna Fail's junior partner in government, was in danger of losing them all.
While most seats remained undecided, Fine Gael was coy about whether it would pursue a coalition with Labour, as many expect, or would try to build a coalition with a group of independents.
"People were waiting to take revenge on Fianna Fail, and they have certainly done so with great gusto," said Batt O'Keefe, one of 18 Fianna Fail incumbents who chose not to seek re-election.
Fine Gael ("tribe of the Irish") and Fianna Fail ("soldiers of destiny") were born from opposing sides in Ireland's civil war of the 1920s, and many see little difference between them on the issues. Fianna Fail, however, was leading the government when the property boom collapsed in 2007, and it put taxpayers on the hook to bail out Ireland's failing banks.
Brian Cowen, the outgoing prime minister, had fallen to record low popularity and resigned as Fianna Fail party leader even before the campaign. He had wanted to hold the election in March, but agreed to hold it early in a deal to win confirmation of the hated EU-IMF bailout.
"Fianna Fail will come back," said new party leader Micheal Martin, who bucked the tide to hold his seat.
The new government, like the last, will be constrained by the terms negotiated for the €67.5 billion ($92 billion) credit line from the European Central Bank and the IMF. The loan is contingent on Ireland cutting €15 billion ($20.6 billion) from its deficit spending over the coming four years and imposing the harshest cuts this year.
Kenny has pledged to try to negotiate easier terms for repaying the loan. He has also promised to create 100,000 new jobs in five years and to make holders of senior bonds in Ireland's nationalized banks shoulder some of the losses.
Fine Gael said it would seek to balance public finances mainly through cuts, not tax hikes; it would also reform the health service and abolish 150 public bodies.
Earlier this month, the Standard & Poor's ratings agency cut its credit grade for Ireland and warned it could fall further because of doubts about the true scale of defaulting loans in the country's largely state-owned banks.
Moody's and Fitch also downgraded Irish bank bonds, saying they were worried about whether the new government would give banks as much support as they had enjoyed until now.