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Europe

Economic woes dominate as Irish voters go to polls

Europe's debt crisis is set to claim its first political scalp in an Irish election dominated by the trauma of economic collapse and the harsh path back to financial stability.

Edna Kenny campaign headquarters

The opposition campaigned for a better bailout package

Initial exit polls from Ireland's general election were due out early Saturday morning, with voters expected to turf the ruling Fianna Fail party over the collapse of the economy and a widely hated bailout.

The 3.1 million Irish voters are in a vicious mood over the bursting of a property bubble that has left them steeped in debt and facing years of austerity.

However, Ireland has not experienced the kind of mass public protests seen in fellow eurozone struggler Greece, despite the return of mass emigration, 10 percent unemployment, widespread negative equity and a rising suicide rate.

Ireland accepted a 85-billion-euro ($115 billion) bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund in November after a debt crisis centered on the banks threatened to spiral out of control.

Ireland was the second eurozone nation after Greece to seek help and the deal is widely viewed by the Irish as humiliating - particularly given that just a few years ago, the country's roaring "Celtic Tiger" economy had been the envy of the world.

The main opposition, the center-right Fine Gael party, has ridden the wave of outrage to finish at 38-40 percent in opinion polls, although most analysts believe it will fall short of a majority in the 166-member Dail, or parliament.

Getting a better deal for Ireland

Polling card showing Fine Gael's leader Enda Kenny

The Irish are determined to vote in a change

Fine Gael's leader Enda Kenny, a 59-year-old former teacher, will likely be the new taoiseach, or premier. He said his priority for his first 100 days in office would be to "restore Ireland's international reputation."

He has already taken steps to renegotiate the terms of the bailout, visiting Brussels and Berlin to discuss the "punitive" 5.8 percent interest rate on the loans and the cost of restructuring Ireland's debt-ridden banks.

The EU is open to amending the deal, but Dublin is under pressure to cut its ultra-low 12.5 percent corporate tax rate in return - a rate that Kenny stressed this week was of "fundamental importance" to Ireland's economy.

If Fine Gael fails to win a majority, it will need the support of a various independents. For the sake of stability, most analysts expect it will form a coalition government with the center-left Labour Party, which has been polling at 18 percent.

The two parties have a history of working well in government and both have campaigned for a mandate to renegotiate the terms of the EU/IMF package, widely seen in Ireland as punitive.

Some consensus

The biggest fault-line between Fine Gael and Labour is over the deadline to tackle the deficit. Labour wants an extra year, until 2016, to get it under 3 percent of GDP, the EU limit, from nearly 12 percent of GDP last year.

The centrist Fianna Fail, which has been in power for 61 of the past 79 years, has been polling at about 15 percent. Commentators predict it could win just 20 seats, a virtual wipeout compared to the 77 it won in the 2007 election. It would be the sharpest collapse of support for any Irish party.

The party is led by former Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, who took over after Prime Minster Brian Cowen bowed to months of pressure over his handling of the economy and quit the leadership in January. Cowen is not standing in Friday's vote.

Polling booths remained open until 2200 GMT. The complicated counting required for Ireland's single transferable vote system means early exit poll results are not expected until later on Saturday.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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