Ireland election: First vote since EU/IMF bail-out

A woman votes in Castlebar, County Mayo, Irish Republic, 25 February This woman was voting in Castlebar, County Mayo

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Polls have opened in the Republic of Ireland, the first eurozone state to hold a general election following a financial bail-out.

The ballot was called more than a year early, a few months after the ruling coalition negotiated an 85bn-euro (£72bn) EU/IMF loan package.

Divisions had emerged in the ruling coalition between Fianna Fail and the Green Party.

A record number of independent candidates are standing for election.

Voting began at 0700 GMT and is due to finish at 2200 GMT. Polls opened on some of the country's islands on Wednesday.

There are 566 candidates fighting in 43 constituencies for 165 seats in the Irish parliament (Dail Eireann).

The burden of the bail-out will likely loom large in voters' minds as they enter the polling booths, with all the main parties promising to amend it.

Irish politics

  • Dominated by two parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, which emerged after Irish nationalists split over the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty
  • Fianna Fail was once seen as more centrist, Fine Gael as more conservative, but differences have blurred
  • The Labour Party was the traditional junior partner in coalitions until 1997
  • The Green Party came into its own in 2007 when it joined Fianna Fail in coalition
  • Sinn Fein, shunned by the mainstream because of its IRA connections, held nearly as many seats as the Greens in the outgoing parliament

Unemployment in the Republic currently stands at 13.4%, meaning 450,000 are out of work. Unemployment benefits have recently been cut back.

Added to these woes are the large number of financially stretched young people who purchased houses at the height of the Irish economic boom five years ago.

Their homes are now in negative equity, meaning they are currently worth a fraction of their original purchase price.

Nobody is immune from the Irish recession which has seen the return of large-scale emigration - currently estimated at 1,000 people per week.

And the retail sector is suffering.

Rising unemployment has meant less money is in circulation on the high street, resulting in diminishing turnover, which in turn has forced many shop owners to lay off staff, thus creating a vicious circle of declining daily spend.

Saturday count

While a record 233 independents, including those in smaller parties, are standing, only 85 female candidates (15% of those contesting the election) are seeking seats in the 31st Dail.

The Irish use the system of proportional representation to elect members of parliament rather than the first-past-the-post method.

There are 6,000 polling booths around the country.

The counting of votes will get under way at 0900 GMT on Saturday in 35 count centres and trends should become clear in the early afternoon before declarations are formally made.

The 31st Dail will meet on 9 March when the newly elected taoiseach (prime minister) will announce the members of the new government, before heading to the home of Irish President Mary McAleese who will present ministers with their seals of office.

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