Ahern’s party ahead in poll

Fianna Fail gathered 41.

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6 per cent of the votes, according to exit poll data from national broadcasters RTE.

Mr Ahern, whose election campaign got off to a shaky start due to questions over his personal finances, will be glad backing for his party held up after some commentators predicted a meltdown in support ahead of the election.

Roger Jupp, managing director of Lansdowne Market Research which conducted the poll, said it might be the early hours of the morning before the final outcome started to become clear.

The survey – providing the first hard figures from yesterday’s national election for the Dail Eireann parliament – put Fianna Fail on almost exactly the same support it received when Ahern returned to power following the 2002 election.

Ahern’s major opposition rival, Fine Gael, received 26.3 per cent among those polled, up nearly 4 points from 2002.

The left-wing Labour Party, which was aiming to hold the balance of power and has a formal alliance with Fine Gael, received 9.9 per cent, down 1 point.

Fianna Fail’s long-standing partner in coalition government, the Progressive Democrats, had 2.6 per cent, down 1.4 points.

However, the results also demonstrated a razor-thin margin between two potential coalitions on offer: the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat combination attracted 44.2-per cent backing, while Fine Gael-Labour-Green totalled 41 per cent.

Final results for the 166-seat Dail Eireann parliament are unlikely to be known before Saturday because of a complex system that allows voters to rate candidates in order of preference and requires ballots to be counted up to a dozen times.

Analysts and Ireland’s legions of gamblers have rated Ahern, 55, a heavy favourite to remain prime minister.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael trace their roots to opposing sides in the 1922-23 civil war that followed Irish independence from

Britain.

Both stick to the safe middle ground of opinion and take on the flavour of whichever smaller party of the left or right helps them achieve a majority.

Economic boom

For the past decade of unprecedented Celtic Tiger boom that has turned Ireland into Europe’s most dynamic economy, Mr Ahern’s partners have been the Progressive Democrats, who are liberal on social issues but champions of US-style private enterprise and low taxes.

That agenda has helped make Ireland – for centuries a mass exporter of people – the European hub for more than 1,000 multinational companies and the world’s No. 1 exporter of software.

But the Progressive Democrats have languished rock-bottom in every opinion poll.

The election campaign has revealed an Ireland increasingly unsettled by the side-effects of its success:

– Hundreds of thousands of Eastern European immigrants who compete with unionised labour and have given pubs a Polish accent.

– Property prices that have quadrupled in a decade and forced young families to distant suburbs.

– A 5.1-per cent inflation rate, running ahead of a national wage-pact agreement.

– Schools, roads and hospitals under pressure from a booming population.

The exit poll confirmed the widespread view that the most certain coalition combination to exceed the required 83 parliamentary seats for a majority is Fianna Fail and Labour.

But the Labour leader has repeatedly said his goal is to oust Fianna Fail, not help to sustain it in office.

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