- Associated Press - Saturday, February 26, 2011

DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland’s ruling Fianna Fail party faced its worst defeat in nearly 80 years, an exit poll predicted Saturday, as a tidal wave of voter anger swept the Fine Gael opposition into power and crushed the party that dragged Ireland to the edge of bankruptcy.

The exit poll for national broadcaster RTE showed Fianna Fail sinking to a shocking 15.1 percent of the vote in Friday’s election. Going back to 1932, Fianna Fail had never won less than 39 percent in an election and had always been the largest party in the Dail, the lower house of parliament.

The poll said Fine Gael would capture 36.1 percent of the first-preference votes, a figure that puts it in power but without a majority of seats in the Dail.

“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.”

The Labur 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, the chairman of Millward Brown Lansdowne, which conducted the poll for RTE.

The poll was released Saturday before election officials began counting the ballots. In actual results, election officials said nine seats were final so far: three for Fine Gael, four for Labor, one from the Socialist Party and one independent.

Irish voters punished Fianna Fail for the country’s 13 percent unemployment rate, tax hikes, wage cuts and a humiliating bailout that Ireland had to accept from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund after the collapse of the country’s real estate sector.

The exit poll showed more than 200 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.

Fine Gael (“tribe of the Irish”) and Fianna Fail (“soldiers of destiny”), were born from opposing sides in Ireland’s civil war of the 1920s, and many see little difference between them on the issues. Fianna Fail, however, was leading the government when the property boom collapsed in 2007, and it put taxpayers on the hook to bail out Ireland’s failing banks.

Brian Cowen, the outgoing prime minister, had fallen to record-low popularity and resigned as Fianna Fail party leader even before the campaign. He had wanted to hold the election in March, but agreed to it in February as part of a deal to win confirmation of the hated EU-IMF bailout.

The exit 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 election in 2007, the exit poll numbers were within a point of the official results.

The new government, like the last, will be constrained by the terms negotiated for the euro67.5 billion ($92 billion) credit line from the European Central Bank and the IMF. The loan is contingent on Ireland cutting euro15 billion ($20.6 billion) from its deficit spending over the coming four years and imposing the harshest cuts this year.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, the next prime minister, has pledged to try to negotiate easier terms for repaying the loan. 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 shoulder some of the losses.

Fine Gael said it would seek to balance public finances mainly through cuts, not tax hikes; it would also reform the health service and abolish 150 public bodies.

Colette Lavelle, 46, confessed to modest hopes after voting in County Mayo.

“It’s very bad at the moment, hopefully it will improve, but not over the next five years,” said Ms. Lavelle, who is unemployed. “We really want to get rid of the government we have at the moment because they’re all corrupt and spent all the money we had.”

The counting of ballots is expected to continue through Sunday as officials work through Ireland’s proportional representation system.

Earlier this month, the Standard & Poor’s ratings agency cut its credit grade for Ireland and warned it could fall further because of doubts about the true scale of defaulting loans in the country’s largely state-owned banks.

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