Irish voters have propelled center-right opposition party Fine Gael and its leader Enda Kenny to power in a historic election that crushed long-time rival Fianna Fail.
Kenny intends to restore Ireland's battered reputation
The head of Ireland's opposition Fine Gael party on Saturday claimed victory in the general election, saying he had been given a mandate to form the next government.
"This country has given my party a massive endorsement to provide a stable and strong government," Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny told reporters in his constituency in the west of Ireland.
Of the 29 members of parliament so far officially elected to the 31st Irish parliament, ruling Fianna Fail has won only two seats, 11 are from the Fine Gael party, nine are from Labour, two are from Sinn Fein, one is from the Socialist Party and four are independents.
Ruling party Fianna Fail received its worst election results ever with 17.4 percent - down from 41 percent of the poll in Ireland's last elections.
Brian Cowen, the incumbent Irish Taoiseach, or state premier, admitted it was a "difficult day" for Fianna Fail.
Voters were widely expected to expel Fianna Fail
After 14 years in power, Fianna Fail has taken a beating over Ireland's economic crisis. Commentators called the fall from grace the sharpest collapse of any Irish party ever.
Heading into the election, Ireland's 3.1 million registered voters were in a vicious mood over the bursting of a property bubble that has left them steeped in debt and facing years of austerity.
Final results for the 166 member parliament are expected on Sunday morning, but an initial exit poll suggest that Fine Gael will not secure a majority of the seats in parliament.
The poll, conducted by public broadcaster RTE, said leading opposition party Fine Gael received just over 36 percent of the vote, with Labour taking just over 20 percent.
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 in a deal 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.
A better deal for Ireland
Fine Gael's leader Enda Kenny, a 59-year-old former teacher, is set to become the new taoiseach. He said his priority for his first 100 days in office would be to "restore Ireland's international reputation."
Despite anger, protests in Ireland have been seldom
Kenny 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.
Fine Gael, however, will need the support of another party in order to forge a majority coalition. For the sake of stability, most analysts predict it will team up with center-left Labour.
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.
The biggest faultline between Fine Gael and Labour is over the deadline to tackle the deficit. Labour is looking for an extra year, until 2016, to bring it under the EU limit of three percent of gross domestic product from nearly 12 percent of GDP last year.
Author: Gabriel Borrud, Natalia Dannenberg, David Levitz (AFP, Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar