- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) - Prime Minister Bertie Ahern was poised to extend a 10-year run in power that has seen Ireland’s economy become the most dynamic in Europe, partial results from parliamentary elections showed Friday.

The prime minister’s Fianna Fail party took a surprisingly strong lead in the first results from Thursday’s elections, and could even score enough seats to avoid sharing power for the first time in decades. The results indicated voters decided to stick with Ahern despite discontent over painful living costs, gridlocked roads and crowded hospitals - side effects of a booming economy.

Ahern, 55, a common-touch Dubliner, easily won the parliamentary seat he has held since 1977, and dozens more Fianna Fail candidates came out on top in their districts. Ballot counting was expected to last until Saturday.

Fianna Fail’s unexpectedly strong showing meant that Ireland might avoid a shift to the left after a decade of center-right government. A dismal showing for Fianna Fail’s longtime right-wing partner, the Progressive Democrats, means that if he must form a coalition, however, it will be with a left-wing party.

Analysts predicted Fianna Fail would win at least 78 seats and might reach 83, the threshold to govern on its own in the 166-seat Dail Eireann parliament. Fianna Fail has been Ireland’s dominant party since 1932, but has not won an outright majority since 1977.

The Progressive Democrat leader, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McDowell, conceded he had lost his seat and would quit politics.

“I love my country. I am deeply ambitious for it. But … my period in public life as a public representative is over,” said McDowell, who is also Ireland’s justice minister.

Ireland’s ruling coalition has balanced heavy public investment with tax cuts and support for U.S.-style private enterprise. That formula has helped turn a country once known for its exodus of immigrants into the world’s No. 1 software exporter and the European base for more than 1,000 multinational companies, half of them American.

But the election campaign revealed simmering discontent with a 5.1 percent inflation rate and property prices that have quadrupled in a decade, forcing young families into distant suburbs. Schools, roads and hospitals have been unable to cope with rapid population growth, while hundreds of thousands of Eastern European immigrants compete with unionized labor.

Fianna Fail loyalists credited Ahern’s personal appeal for winning over voters.

“This was the Bertie Ahern election, and he won it for us,” said Mary O’Rourke, the matriarch of a Fianna Fail dynasty, whose two nephews Brian and Conor both won re-election.

Preliminary results showed Fianna Fail with 41 percent of votes to Fine Gael’s 27.3 percent.

Before the first ballot was even counted, Ireland’s major bookmaker Paddy Power PLC paid out more than $400,000 in bets that Ahern would remain prime minister.

“Bertie Ahern is going to be taoiseach,” said analyst Noel Whelan, using Ireland’s formal Gaelic title for prime minister. “The question is who’s going to be in government with Fianna Fail.”

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael trace their roots to opposing sides in the 1922-23 civil war that followed Irish independence from Britain. Both stick to the safe middle ground of opinion and take on the flavor of whichever smaller party of the left or right helps them achieve a majority.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Labour leader Pat Rabbitte had hoped to topple Ahern by forging a joint platform.

Rabbitte conceded that the strategy had failed, saying he was sure Ahern would be re-elected prime minister when parliament convenes June 14. He said voters, though angry over inadequate public services, may have been afraid that a change in government would undermine the economy.

“There’s a huge level of personal indebtedness out there, people with huge mortgages and so on,” Rabbitte said. “They may have been fearful of changing horses in midstream.”

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