- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

DUBLIN (AP) - Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has announced a Feb. 26 election that will pit his 5-year-old government’s record of restoring economic health against critics who accuse him of rescuing banks at the expense of the poor.

Kenny, Ireland’s leader since 2011, fired the first shot of the three-week campaign Wednesday in a social media video message. He said voters should return his centrist Fine Gael party to power because of Ireland’s successful exit from an international bailout and its swift rebound to become Europe’s fastest-growing economy.

“This election is about who will keep that recovery going, based on stability and progress,” Kenny said, addressing the camera. “It is a clear choice between continuing on the path of recovery with Fine Gael, or putting your hard-won progress at risk by handing it over to those who have wrecked our country in the past, or those who would wreck it in the future.”

Voters gave Fine Gael its greatest election victory in 2011, just weeks after the previous government negotiated a European Union-International Monetary Fund bailout to save Ireland from bankruptcy.

Fine Gael’s two main obstacles to retaining a parliamentary majority are the populist Fianna Fail, Ireland’s longtime political heavyweight devastated in the 2011 vote, and the nationalist Sinn Fein party.

Kenny’s political fate could be sealed by the performance of Ireland’s smaller Labor Party, which governs in coalition with Fine Gael but is expected to suffer heavy losses.

Kenny highlighted his record of turning around Ireland’s economic fortunes much faster, and more strongly, than any economic commentator could have envisioned five years ago. Ireland exited EU-IMF loan dependency in 2013, repaired its credit ratings, repaid IMF loans early and restructured a broadly nationalized bank sector.

Ireland again boasts Europe’s fastest rate of economic growth - 7 percent - as the country seeks to regain its pre-bailout status as a Celtic Tiger economy. Tax collections and deficit reductions once again are consistently beating targets, and unemployment has just hit a 7-year low of 8.6 percent.

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