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Two million votes cast in unpredictable election

Published 26/02/2016

A returning officer adjusts a sign at a polling station at St Anthony's School in Castlebar, Mayo
A returning officer adjusts a sign at a polling station at St Anthony's School in Castlebar, Mayo

Around two million voters have cast their ballots in one of the most uncertain general elections in Ireland's recent political history.

As polling stations closed at 10pm political parties were estimating around two-thirds of the 3.3 million-strong electorate had voted.

Turnout was uneven across the regions with booths in rain-sodden parts of Cork and Waterford much less busy than other areas during the day.

Reports also suggest that turnout in urban areas was down on the 2011 general election, when it was 70% nationally.

Counting begins around first light on Saturday morning.

As the electorate increasingly turns away from mainstream parties to smaller factions and Independents, a hung parliament is widely predicted.

Such is the voter schism it threatens to blow apart a duopoly enjoyed for more than 80 years by the currently ruling Fine Gael party and the main Opposition party Fianna Fail.

Bitter rivals since the civil war - despite little significant difference in their conservative policies - the pair who swapped power for generations may be forced into a historic "grand coalition".

The coupling would have been unspeakable among their rank and file just years ago but is now hotly-tipped by pollsters and pundits as the odds-on favourite outcome.

The tectonic shift could also open a definitive right/left divide in Ireland's parliament, the Dail, for the first time since the foundation of the State.

Opinion polls show little chance of the outgoing Fine Gael/Labour coalition being returned to power on their own.

After five years of bruising austerity, Labour would need to defy predictions of big losses at the ballot box to help make up the numbers.

Other possibilities include a minority Fine Gael government, supported by arch-enemies Fianna Fail, or a rainbow coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and some smaller parties.

Once a clear picture emerges from the weekend counting of votes, the parties will have until March 10 - when the Dail is scheduled to resume - to forge a power-sharing deal.

The spectre of a second election will loom over any uncertainty.

Despite being the shortest general election campaign in Irish political history, it was a drawn-out, lacklustre three weeks that generally failed to ignite the imagination of the population.

More than 550 candidates are fighting in 40 constituencies for just 158 Dail seats.

With eight fewer seats than last time around, the competition will be particularly intense in some constituencies who are down a representative.

Islanders off the coasts of Donegal, Mayo and Galway voted on Thursday to make sure their ballots were back in time for the count.

President Michael D Higgins and leading politicians were among the first to cast their votes as the polls opened nationally on Friday just before sunrise.

Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina were among 238 voters who live in Phoenix Park and who were registered to cast their ballots at St Mary's Hospital.

Arriving at the polling station desk at around 9am, the head of state waited in line before being asked for his address by the election clerk.

"Aras ... Phoenix Park," he answered.

He then insisted to the clerk that his official address, Aras an Uachtarain, is in the Dublin 7 area.

"It is very often described as Dublin 8 but it isn't. I'm trying to get it straightened out," he joked.

Outgoing Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny voted in his home town of Castlebar, Co Mayo, while Tanaiste Joan Burton, the country's deputy premier and leader of the Labour Party - Fine Gael's junior partner in the last coalition government - voted in Dublin.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin voted in his Cork constituency while Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams cast his ballot in Ravensdale, Co Louth, close to the border with Northern Ireland.

Mr Kenny, turning up to cast his ballot at St Anthony's Special School in his native Castlebar, repeated his insistence that he would not go into coalition with Fianna Fail.

"People are going to vote today, let's see the decision they make," he said.

"I have already ruled Fianna Fail out."

The Fine Gael leader was sporting a green tie, while Fianna Fail leader Mr Martin in Cork was wearing a blue tie - each donning the party colour of their rival.

Asked if there was any significance in the sartorial choice, the Taoiseach responded: "Well, he didn't contact me about that. This one is for Ireland."

He added: "It really is an important day for Ireland - the decision is being made today by the people, who rule after all, will determine the future direction of the country for the next five years."

Arriving to vote at Dublin's St Joseph's Deaf Boys School, Tanaiste and Labour leader Ms Burton said she was buoyed by the spring-like day for polling, and was hoping it would also be a sunny day for her at the count.

"I was out saying hello to people at Coolmine railway station this morning, and I have to say it was the nicest early morning canvass I've done in the whole campaign," she said.

"So that is a good omen. I'm feeling upbeat and optimistic."

Fianna Fail leader Mr Martin, who cast his ballot along with his family at St Anthony's Boys National School in Cork, refused to forecast the outcome.

"I am not going to make any predictions but I am hopeful that we will get a good result - it's up to the people now to decide but it was quite clear to us even yesterday on the campaign trail that there are quite a number of people who still have to make their mind up," he said.

"In fact, it was quite striking how many people still hadn't made their minds up.

"They were asking basic questions around policy terms. I think there's been a lot of activity on the ground and I would like to think that would manifest itself in a good turnout."

In Louth, Sinn Fein leader Mr Adams said he was not taking the election for granted as he arrived at the Dulargy National School polling station in Ravensdale.

"We stand on our record and we call upon people to come out," he said.

"There's no point not voting - if you don't vote it's a sure vote for the establishment parties."

An exit poll carried out for the Irish Times by pollsters Ipsos MRBI showed a massive slump in support for the outgoing coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour.

Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, Independents and smaller parties all made significant gains, according to the survey of people leaving polling stations.

The poll shows Fine Gael on 26.1% of first preference votes; Labour on 7.8%; Fianna Fail on 22.9%; Sinn Fein on 14.9%; Anti Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit on 3.6%; Greens on 3.5%; Social Democrats on 2.8%; Renua on 2.6%; and others on 16.1%.

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