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article imageIreland votes in 'three horse race' for power

By Joe STENSON (AFP)     Feb 7, 2020 in Politics

Ireland began voting in a general election on Saturday, with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar hoping to secure a new term on the back of Brexit -- though voters are more likely to judge him more on his domestic record.

Polls opened across the country at 0700 GMT, although a small number of islands off the west coast voted on Friday to allow for rough seas potentially disrupting the transport of ballots by boat.

Varadkar's Fine Gael party has been in power since 2011 but polling suggests they are trailing centre-right rivals Fianna Fail and left-wingers Sinn Fein.

In Monday's final opinion poll, Sinn Fein -- the former political wing of the now-defunct Irish Republican Army paramilitary group -- were out in front on 25 percent, with Fianna Fail on 23 percent and Fine Gael on 20 percent.

In Dublin a slow trickle of morning voters made their way to polling stations for the weekend vote, which breaks with Ireland's tradition of elections being held on Friday, in a bid to decrease disruption and improve turnout.

Voters told AFP they were looking to break the historic duopoly of centre-right parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

"I'm hopeful there will be change. In this country for far too long it's been dominated by two parties," said 60-year-old James Comiskey.

As the ruling party seeks to retain control of government in Dublin  voters seem less preoccupied by...
As the ruling party seeks to retain control of government in Dublin, voters seem less preoccupied by the fallout from Brexit than issues such as healthcare, housing and homelessness
Ben STANSALL, AFP

"Hopefully I'm looking for a more left government of Ireland," said 22 year-old Alexander Faw.

Some 3.3 million people are eligible to vote to elect 159 members of the Dail, the lower chamber of parliament in Dublin.

A single transferable vote system is used to elect multiple members from 39 constituencies.

- A 'Brexit election' -

President Michael D. Higgins, 78, cast his vote at a hospital in Dublin.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, 59, voted with his family in his Cork city constituency, saying he was confident following a campaign focused on housing and health.

Varadkar and 50-year-old Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald were due to cast their ballots later in the capital.

"This election is wide open," Varadkar said at his final campaign stop in the western town of Ennis on Friday.

"It's a three horse race: three parties all within shouting distance of each other."

Composition of the Irish parliament  ahead of Saturday's general election
Composition of the Irish parliament, ahead of Saturday's general election
, AFP

Varadkar launched his campaign after successfully helping to broker a deal cushioning Britain's EU exit on January 31 by avoiding a hard border with Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom.

Varadkar has warned voters that Brexit is "not done yet", as London prepares for talks with Brussels to secure a swift, longer-term trade deal before the end of the year.

Failure to do so could present an "existential threat" to the Irish economy, he said.

But experts suggest he may have miscalculated the public mood with surveys indicating Brexit was a low concern among the electorate.

Other parties have hammered Fine Gael over failings in health care, housing and homelessness. Varadkar acknowledged he understood that on Friday.

"You want us over the next three years to focus on issues like health and housing with the same passion and intensity that we've focused on Brexit in the past three years," he said.

- Domestic woes -

In office since June 2017, Varadkar, 41, is Ireland's first mixed-race and openly gay premier who has come to represent a more socially progressive Ireland after years of dominance by the Roman Catholic church.

But despite Brexit, and landmark votes to overturn strict abortion laws and introduce same-sex marriage, some predict he could be on his way out.

"Varadkar is young, he's gay, he looks like part of the new Ireland," Eunan O'Halpin, of Trinity College Dublin, told AFP.

"Yet his personal popularity appears to have dipped, and that of his party has dipped very significantly."

Polls close at 2200 GMT and votes start being counted at 0900 GMT on Sunday.

A three-way race led by Sinn Fein is a new dynamic for the Republic, where governments have been historically dominated by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

Despite its opinion poll lead, Sinn Fein is not fielding enough candidates to form a majority government, while both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have ruled out working with them in coalition.

Since 2016, Fianna Fail have propped up Fine Gael in office with a confidence and supply arrangement that could implicate them in the perceived failings of the government.

"(Young people) blame the current government and coalition of parties in government for this mess," O'Halpin said of the housing shortage.

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