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New Irish leader Enda Kenny often underestimated

Opposition leader Enda Kenny has already shattered Ireland's 80-year-old political monopoly. Now he faces an even more challenging assignment — rebuilding Ireland's economy, nearly brought to its knees by reckless property speculation and bank lending.

Defying doubters of his ability, Kenny rebuilt his Fine Gael party into a force that handed the ruling Fianna Fail party its worst defeat since 1932 in Friday's national vote. He faces a decision within days on building a stable government that will respond to Irish voters angry and anxious over the nation's economic freefall and subsequent bailout by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

In victory, Kenny made big promises of a new style of government.

His administration will be "one of responsibility, not privilege; a government of public duty, not personal entitlement; a government looking with confidence and courage to the future, not with guilt and regret at the past," Ireland's next prime minister told delirious supporters late Saturday.

Only eight months ago, his Fine Gael colleagues thought so little of his leadership that they tried to oust him.

But the steely nerve and sharp tactics that Kenny displayed in rebuffing that challenge will be sorely tested as he works to assemble a strong government — either with another party, or with the support of independents.

The latter option offers Kenny more opportunities to reward Fine Gael legislators with ministerial jobs. The temptation grows as Fine Gael wins more places in the 166-seat Dail, the lower house of Parliament; with 78 or more seats, going it alone is a viable option.

"We stand on the brink of fundamental change in how we regard ourselves, in how we regard our economy, and in how we regard our society," Kenny said.

The vote count continued for a second day Sunday, with Fine Gael winning 68 seats and the Labour Party taking 35. Fianna Fail, which had won the most seats in every election since 1932 but was in power when Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" economy imploded, won just 17. Sinn Fein — which supported the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland — had 13, and independents and smaller parties had 17 seats.

Irish voters punished Fianna Fail for 13 percent unemployment, tax hikes, wage cuts and a humiliating bailout that will require years of austerity budgets.

Fine Gael has experience in governing in a coalition with Labour, and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore appeared eager to deal. The combination would offer Kenny an overwhelming majority, as well as a partner to share the heat when tough choices stir popular outrage.

Still, 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 bailout loan. He has also promised to create 100,000 new jobs in five years and to make senior bond holders 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.

Kenny's path to the top has been long and, in earlier years, slow moving. Kenny, then a teacher, was elected to the Dail in 1975 to take the place of his father, who had died suddenly.

In the 2002 election, in which Fine Gael lost 23 of the 54 seats it held in the Dail, Kenny reportedly had his concession speech ready but scraped by to win a seat. Elected leader that same year, he led a revived party to win 51 seats in 2007.

Chris Curtin, head of the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, said Kenny's popularity was due to his reputation for straight dealing.

"He is seen as an incredibly honorable person, without any thread of anything untoward attached to him," Curtin said.