Irish election: exit poll shows Fine Gael leading

The opposition Fine Gael party appears poised to lead Ireland's next government as an exit poll released Saturday showed the party far ahead, while the long-dominant Fianna Fail party seemed headed for its worst result ever.

The poll was released an hour before counting of ballots began at centers around the country.

The Millward Brown Lansdowne exit poll for national broadcaster RTE showed Fine Gael with 36.1 percent of the first-preference votes in Friday's balloting, a figure which would fall short of giving the party a majority of seats in the Dail, the lower house of parliament.

Fianna Fail, which had won the most seats in every previous election, had 15.1 percent support. In elections going back to 1932, when the party led a government for the first time, it had never done worse than 39 percent.

The Labour Party, Fine Gael's likely coalition partner, had 20.5 percent, which would be its best performance ever.

"The political landscape of Ireland is completely and utterly redrawn," said Roger Jupp, chairman of Millward Brown Lansdowne.

The poll was based on face-to-face interviews with 3,500 voters at polling stations on Friday, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 points. In the last national election in 2007, the exit poll numbers were within a point of the official results.

"However bad people thought it would get for Fianna Fail, nobody thought it would get this bad," said Michael Marsh, professor of comparative political behavior at Trinity College Dublin. "That is highly significant."

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, who will lead the next government, has pledged to try to negotiate easier terms for repaying the euro67.5 billion ($92 billion) credit line from the European Central Bank and the IMF. 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 share in the catastrophic losses racked up when Ireland's property bubble burst.

The exit poll showed a range of independent and minor party candidates with 15.5 percent support, while Sinn Fein — the party that supported the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland — had 10.1 percent.

Sinn Fein won 2 percent of the vote in 2002 and 6 percent in 2007.

Counting of ballots is expected to continue through Sunday as officials work through Ireland's proportional representation system. In each round of counting, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and those ballots go to the candidates marked as the second choice.

The process continues until all the seats are filled; Irish constituencies have three, four or five seats.