Voting begins in Irish national election

Polls opened in Ireland on Friday in a national election expected to bring big changes in the nation's political complexion.

The campaign has been dominated by debate on how to rebuild an economy brought low by the collapse of a property boom, which in turn led to a bailout of Ireland's banks. Unemployment has soared to more than 13 percent.

The governing Fianna Fail party is bracing for a rout — it led the government through Ireland's boom years in 1994-2007 and into the economic meltdown that precipitated a humiliating bailout from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Ireland's plight has inspired a lively contest with a record 566 candidates including 179 independents for the 166 seats in Ireland's lower house in parliament, the Dail. Nearly 49,000 people have rushed to register to vote in recent weeks.

Opinion polls suggest that Ireland's 3.1 million voters will usher in a new government led by the opposition Fine Gael party, which until now has been the perennial runner-up in Irish elections. The big question is whether Fine Gael will need a coalition partner, most likely the Labour Party.

The opposition has used Ireland's dire economic situation as a rallying call for change — Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny campaigned in northwestern Ireland on Thursday, urging voters to "turn your anger into action."

Fine Gael has held a comfortable lead throughout the campaign with support nearing 40 percent, large enough to inspire speculation it might even win the 84 seats needed for a majority in the Dail.

Labour has been bumping along at around 20 percent, ahead of Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein, the Northern Ireland-based party that supported the Irish Republican Army, is expected to gain seats.

Voting on Friday will continue until 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) throughout the country, and counting of the results begins Saturday morning.