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Hutton: 'Ireland has quite an unusual electoral system'

Exit polls show that Irish voters have expressed their disappointment with Prime Minister Enda Kenny and his coalition government in general elections. So what does that mean?

The

preliminary results of Ireland's elections

are not expected before Sunday, but they could lead to either

a hung parliament

or a coalition between center-right parties that have been rivals for decades.

Brian Hutton, a Dublin-based journalist for Ireland's Press Association, told DW what makes this latest democratic go-round unique.

DW: Can you put this election into historical context?

Hutton: For years [Ireland's political system] was dominated by two parties: Fine Gael - a senior coalition partner and Fianna Fail, who were the most dominant name in Irish politics. The pair swapped chairs for nearly 80-90 years - unusual in terms of the European perspective, since these are two center-right parties. In addition, 2016 is a special year for Ireland because it is celebrating its 100 anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which was a rebellion against the British control at the time. Although the rebellion failed, it has paved the way to an eventual independence, so it's a real turning point in the Irish history, followed by a nasty civil war during which Irish families were torn apart. This bitter legacy has lasted up until this day.

The significant thing everyone is wondering about is whether or not this is the year in which the two center-right parties - sworn enemies, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael - will actually have to come together to form a stable government. It would, for the very first time, open up the possibility that there will be a left-led opposition in the Irish parliament. There has never been a left-led opposition parliament, much less a left-led government.

So what do the initial exit polls mean?

It's still very early days, as Ireland has quite an unusual electoral system. Everything is unusual in Ireland - not excluding our electoral system, so it will likely take days before we will get actual final results. An exit poll published by the Irish Times newspaper showed absolutely embarrassing losses for the two coalition partners: the Fine Gael and the Labour. The Fine Gael is a center-right party - so more or less the equivalent of the Christian Democrats in Europe, and the Labour party who describe themselves as center-left, similar to the Socialists in Europe.

You tweeted that "voters are punishing the government." Punishing it for what?

They're being punished

by what once would have been their core working class support, increasingly turning into the hands of Sinn Fein, who are known internationally to be linked with the IRA and who proclaim a left-wing ideology. Voters are also turning to smaller left-wing parties ranging across the leftist spectrum, such as the newly formed Social Democrats, to which polls predict around 4 percent. So, you see an electorate that is punishing the main two coalition partners for

five years of austerity.

Irland Wahlen

Officials sort through ballots during a count in Castlebar

The Labour Party was expecting bad results in this election, but the big surprise here is Fine Gael, who has performed badly as well. They were expected in polls leading up to the election to form about 30 percent of the votes, so the numbers are quite shocking. A poll by the Irish national radio, RTE, has shown that they are expected to gain even less than 25 percent.

How does this compare with more recent elections?

Fine Gael swept the crowd in 2011, after Fianna Fail was the dominant party for more than a decade. Fianna Fail were perceived as responsible for the economic crash, and voters punished them for that and switched to Fine Gael. However, after five years of Fine Gael and Labour, it appears that voters believe that they didn't get much change - that the austerity continued. Of course this also has to do with the International Monetary Fund, the EU, and the Europen Central Bank coming into Ireland to bail it out, and giving a strict program which the country had to stick to.

There were also number of taxes, levies, cuts to public spending, cuts to welfare, a universal social charge - all of which were levied on everybody's income. Most controversially, or at least it acted as a last straw, was last year's introduction of the water charges, basically taxing Irish for the consumption of water. And that really seemed to be a final straw that broke the camel's back of the Irish electorate. It inspired a movement called "rights to water," attracted the support of a number of the leftist parties and also the trade unions, which represent hundreds of thousands of Irish workers. It has remained a very contentious issue, and a lot of the parties that seemed to be doing well according to the early tallies in this election are against the much-hated water charges.

Did the possibility of a Brexit come into play?

It's an issue that has popped up in terms of the general national conversation. If Britain were to leave the EU, you might have security frontier checkpoints again along the Irish border, that I grew up with during the troubles there, which are all gone now, so it could become a frontier. There's also a national conversation about trade with Britain and how that would be impacted - but, really, in this election that was not an issue.

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