Europe

Irish parties pull out the stops on last day of race

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny smiles at a baby on the election trail in Dublin, 23 February
Image caption Enda Kenny is hoping for a landslide win for Fine Gael

Parties in the Irish Republic have been battling for votes on the last day of campaigning in an election dominated by the euro state's massive bail-out.

Party leaders spread out across the country, with Fine Gael's Enda Kenny, tipped as the next prime minister, focusing on the north and west.

Fine Gael's opinion poll lead suggests it will replace Fianna Fail as the party of power, alone or in coalition.

Micheal Martin's Fianna Fail faces a rout of historic proportions.

A final opinion poll suggests the party, which has dominated Irish politics for decades, will struggle to win more than 20 seats - down from 77 at the last election to the Dail (parliament).

It is associated in voters' minds with swingeing cuts and the burden of the 85bn euro ($113bn; £72bn) EU/IMF loan package negotiated in November by Brian Cowen, its former leader and outgoing taoiseach (prime minister).

Some Fianna Fail strategists are counting on the "shy voter" effect - the hope that wavering supporters will return to the fold on election day, having been simply too embarrassed to tell pollsters how they are actually going to vote.

"If you are a Fianna Fail supporter and somebody asked you what party you were going to vote for, I suspect you would be reluctant to say Fianna Fail," Eoin O'Malley, a politics lecturer at Dublin City University, told Reuters news agency.

'Make-believe economics'

Image caption Communities on Irish offshore islands have been voting early

Buoyed by polls predicting at least 70 seats for Fine Gael in the 166-seat Dail, Enda Kenny spent Thursday in counties Donegal and Sligo, before returning to his home in Castlebar, Mayo.

"If this election is to take the political pulse of our nation, then I want every beat and every vote to show a nation that looks with hope and generosity and courage to the future, not with regret or hurt, and bitterness of the past," he said in the final hours of the race.

Mr Kenny's personal ratings have soared from 12 points in the past three weeks to 35%, despite accusations that the 59-year-old former teacher is boring and has a poor grasp of policy.

He is advocating 25 ideas to "get the country back to work" including tax cuts, abolishing some public bodies and taking away official cars from government ministers, who would rely on a car pool instead.

If his party cannot garner an outright majority, its likely coalition partner is Labour, the traditional third party of Irish politics which may just pip Fianna Fail this time around.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore appealed to voters not to give Fine Gael a "monopoly of power".

"Instead, we need a fair and balanced government that brings people together," he said.

Despite his party's bleak look-out, Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin kept up his message that Fine Gael's election manifesto was neither credible nor costed.

"The issues facing our country are too serious for political game-playing or make-believe economics," he said.

'Bad deal'

Image caption Gerry Adams was campaigning in County Louth

Opinion polls suggest that the vast majority of voters want to renegotiate the bail-out and all the main parties have promised to amend it.

Mr Kenny has described it as a "bad deal for Ireland".

However, the next government will not have much financial room for manoeuvre under the strict terms of the bail-out, the BBC's Ireland correspondent, Mark Simpson, says.

Another party expected to make gains is Sinn Fein whose president, Gerry Adams, is contesting an election in the Irish Republic for the first time.

Sinn Fein, he said, offered a "better way" for Ireland. The party proposes rejecting the bail-out outright, rather than amending it.

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