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Irish PM on Course for Second Term

May 18, 2002

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DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) _ Prime Minister Bertie Ahern was headed for a second term in power as his Fianna Fail party scored gains in Ireland’s parliamentary election and the Fine Gael opposition suffered heavy losses, partial results showed Saturday.

Fianna Fail, long dominant in Irish politics, was on course to win more than 80 seats in Ireland’s 166-seat parliament, analysts and opposition leaders agreed. The big question was whether Ahern’s party could claim an outright 84-seat majority _ a feat achieved just once before in Irish history a quarter-century ago.

Ahern, 50, who faces formal re-election when parliament convenes on June 6, came to power in 1997 with the help of a fiscally conservative party, the Progressive Democrats, who gave Ahern’s outgoing administration a right-wing hue and a pro-business agenda. They oversaw the past five years of unprecedented expansion in Ireland’s vaunted Celtic Tiger economy.

The Progressive Democrats, or PDs, were also doing far better than expected, partial returns from Friday’s election showed.

Outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney, the PD leader, was headed to re-election in her southwest Dublin constituency, while the party’s president and government attorney general, Michael McDowell, stunned observers by topping the vote in the capital’s southeast after being rated rock-bottom in opinion polls.

Ireland’s complex system of proportional representation, which allows three to five candidates to win in each of Ireland’s 42 constituencies, always means a marathon ballot count. Most official results were expected by late Saturday night.

But Fine Gael, which has been the No. 2 party to Fianna Fail in every election since 1932, was facing humiliating defeat. Several key figures were struggling to win the final available seat in their districts, raising the question of who would survive to replace leader Michael Noonan, already widely tipped to resign.

Michael Gallagher, politics professor at Trinity College Dublin and author of a book on Fine Gael, said the party looked likely to retain fewer than 40 seats, its worst performance in six decades.

``I would see Fianna Fail coming in around 83 seats, on the cusp of an overall majority. For Fine Gael things are going extremely badly. It’s a nightmare for them,″ Gallagher said.

Fine Gael’s director of elections, Finbar Fitzpatrick, conceded the party had suffered ``a major defeat.″

``The drop in the Fine Gael vote is worst in Dublin but we’re under pressure in a number of constituencies,″ he said.

The other major change in Saturday’s results was being registered by Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party long on the fringe of political life here.

Sinn Fein, buoyed by dedicated campaigners and a war chest of Irish-American cash, was expected to win several seats in Dublin and rural districts.

Sinn Fein, which won a single seat in 1997, tripled its support from 2.5 percent last time to over 7 percent nationally this time, largely at the expense of Ireland’s traditional left-wing party, Labor.

One of the first results announced Saturday, the four-lawmaker constituency of Dublin Southwest, illustrated wider trends.

Sinn Fein supporters roared wildly with approval as their candidate, Sean Crowe, came tops with 7,466 votes. Fianna Fail’s Charlie O’Connor and Conor Lenihan looked likely to win two more seats with 7,155 and 7,080 votes respectively, with the last seat probably going to Labor’s Pat Rabbitte, one of Ireland’s most high-profile and outspoken lawmakers.

The all-but-certain loser was Brian Hayes, one of Fine Gael’s most prominent younger lawmakers, who had topped the 1997 vote.

Sinn Fein is already a significant political force in the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland, its power base, where it has become part of a coalition Catholic-Protestant government formed under terms of the province’s 1998 peace accord.

But Ahern had ruled out the possibility of admitting Sinn Fein into any Irish government until the outlawed IRA disbands as an organization.

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