- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

DUBLIN Despite relentless rain, voters turned out in force yesterday to elect Ireland's next Parliament, a contest that could place Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his Fianna Fail party in a position of strength achieved only once before in Irish history.
Mr. Ahern, who has led Ireland through five years of double-digit economic growth, declined to make predictions as he voted in his native Drumcondra, north Dublin. Ballots in most districts wouldn't be counted until today, with full results expected in the evening.
But all the polls in the three-week campaign forecast that Mr. Ahern's Fianna Fail will build on the 77 seats it won in the 166-seat Parliament in 1997, when Mr. Ahern rose to power atop a coalition government that delivered tax cuts and big increases in spending.
With seven more seats, Fianna Fail would have enough lawmakers to form a one-party majority government for the second time. Fianna Fail's victory in 1977 was the only time any party had reached that plateau since Ireland's independence from Britain in 1922. All other governments have been coalitions or minority Fianna Fail administrations.
Michael Gallagher, professor of politics at Trinity College Dublin, said that if Fianna Fail gets around half of votes as some polls forecast, "then we would be looking at a tidal wave of 1977 proportions."
A Fianna Fail victory would be welcomed by the markets, which like Mr. Ahern's pro-business, tax-cutting agenda. Since the mid-1990s, multinational corporations have helped make this once-impoverished backwater Europe's preferred base for many computer, communications and pharmaceutical firms.
Fine Gael party leader Michael Noonan insisted his party would shock the pundits and pollsters. He said the Fianna Fail-led government had been lucky, not competent, and was about to throw Ireland's budget back into deficit.
Paddy Power, the largest betting chain, had Mr. Ahern as an incredible 1-to-100 favorite to stay in office and Mr. Noonan at odds of 33 to 1.
A new government can be formed only after the new Parliament convenes June 6 to elect a prime minister.
The most eagerly watched subplot in the vote yesterday was an expected breakthrough by Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-allied party.
Sinn Fein, rooted in the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland, never stood a chance of building support south of the border during the IRA's 27-year campaign of murder and mayhem.
But the IRA cease-fire has allowed Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams open-field running in a country where other left-wing parties are declining. Sinn Fein has one seat, but is contending for several more.


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