/ 26 May 2007

‘Great night for Fianna Fail’ in Ireland

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern’s long-dominant Fianna Fail party marched toward its sixth straight election victory on Friday as voters opted to stick with a popular leader who has presided over unprecedented economic success.

”It’s a great night for Fianna Fail, and it’s a great night for the party machine,” said Ahern, who topped the poll in his own Dublin Central district after travelling the country relentlessly pressing the flesh.

”I worked off four hours’ sleep for five weeks. I’m a tough guy,” said Ahern, ”but that does wear on the body.”

Fianna Fail won 41,6% of the popular vote, virtually the same figure it achieved in the previous election in 2002, and appeared on course to defend its current 79-seat bloc in the Dail Eireann Parliament. The ballot count from Thursday’s election was to continue into Saturday.

The major opposition Fine Gael, which had hoped to rise to power in alliance with the left-wing Labour Party, gained seats with 27,3% of the vote. Labour, however, failed to deliver its end of the bargain with just 10,1% backing — enough to help Fianna Fail, but not Fine Gael, form a majority administration.

Ahern, renowned as a savvy negotiator, declined to say whether he thinks his party could cut a deal with Labour leader Pat Rabbitte, who dedicated his campaign to ousting Fianna Fail from power.

Ahern said his only goal now is ”to command a stable government for a five-year term”, which could also mean forging an alliance with the environmental Green Party or with independent lawmakers. He confirmed his intention to serve as prime minister until mid-2012.

However, Fianna Fail’s coalition partner over the past decade, the Progressive Democrats — whose tax-cutting, pro-business agenda deeply coloured Ahern’s policies — suffered electoral meltdown.

The party’s leader, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McDowell, announced he intends to quit politics after he, his party deputy leader and party president all lost their seats.

”I love my country. I am deeply ambitious for it, but … my period in public life as a public representative is over,” said McDowell, who is also Ireland’s Justice Minister.

Ahern (55) is already the second-longest-serving prime minister in Irish history behind the founder of Fianna Fail, Eamon de Valera, who won seven elections from 1932 to 1957.

Fianna Fail, which means ”Soldiers of Destiny” in Gaelic, has won more seats than any other party in every national election since 1932. But it has failed to win an outright majority on its own since 1977, instead being forced to negotiate coalitions with much smaller parties of the left or right.

Fianna Fail stalwarts credited Ahern’s personal appeal with overcoming public worries that Ireland’s 13 years of Celtic Tiger boom could be coming to an busted by inflation, debt, strikes and rising interest rates.

”This was the Bertie Ahern election, and he won it for us,” said Mary O’Rourke, the matriarch of a Fianna Fail dynasty, whose two nephews Brian and Conor both won re-election.

Fine Gael chief Enda Kenny was one of few observers who refused to concede Ahern’s return to power.

But Rabbitte expressed confidence that Ahern would be re-elected prime minister when the newly elected Dail Eireann convenes on June 14. He said voters stuck with Fianna Fail as the choice least likely to unsettle Ireland’s economy.

”There’s a huge level of personal indebtedness out there, people with huge mortgages and so on,” Rabbitte said. ”They may have been fearful of changing horses in midstream.”

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael trace their roots to opposing sides in the 1922-1923 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.

Since the mid-1990s, Ireland — once a mass exporter of people — has become the world’s number-one exporter of software. More than 1 000 high-tech companies, half of them American, have made Ireland their preferred European base today because of low taxes, an English-speaking work force and the country’s participation in the euro common currency.

But the election campaign has revealed an Ireland hurting from the side-effects of its success.

Hundreds of thousands of Eastern European immigrants now compete with unionised labour, which wants wages to rise faster than Ireland’s 5,1% inflation rate. Property prices have quadrupled in a decade, forcing young families to live in distant suburbs and endure brutal commutes on single-lane roads. And schools, roads and hospitals have been unable to cope with rapid population growth.

Ballot counting was running into Saturday because Ireland’s complex proportional representation system allows voters to rate candidates in order of preference. This means ballots must be counted up to a dozen times as votes are transferred from the most and least popular candidates to others. — Sapa-AP