Ireland faces uncertainty after ousting coalition

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Dublin (AFP)

Ireland waited for the final results Sunday of an election that has left the eurozone country in limbo, ejecting Prime Minister Enda Kenny's governing coalition but offering no clear alternative.

First results from Friday's vote indicated Kenny's Fine Gael party and its junior partner, Labour, will no longer have a parliamentary majority -- but neither will any other grouping, meaning weeks of negotiations may lie ahead.

"Democracy can be very exciting but it's merciless when it kicks in. So this is a disappointment for the Fine Gael party," Kenny told RTE television after he was re-elected in his rural constituency of Mayo.

"Clearly the government of Fine Gael and Labour are not going to be returned to office and obviously one has to wait now until all the counts are in right across the country to see what the options that must be considered are."

In a trend that echoed elections in Greece, Spain and Portugal, voters turned to independent politicians, smaller parties and anti-austerity groups amid anger over hardship that has continued despite strong economic growth.

Initial results indicated Fine Gael would still be the largest party in parliament, but old rivals Fianna Fail are now hot on their heels in a remarkable recovery from 2011, when they were routed in the wake of the economic crash.

The two parties have political similarities but a bitter history, as the political descendents of opposite sides in a civil war who have taken turns ruling Ireland since 1932.

Yet between them they would have enough seats to govern, and party figures began to indicate this previously unthinkable arrangement could be considered.

"We're committed to doing our best by the country and ensuring that the country gets a good government. But it will take time," said Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin.

- Another election? -

Analysts stressed negotiations would not be easy and that Ireland could face an election re-run.

"I think the prospect of another election very soon is now very, very high," said Mark Mortell, a senior Fine Gael strategist.

Negotiating parties will be mindful of the date of March 10, when the newly-elected representatives are due to meet in the lower house of parliament Dail Eireann and, in theory, appoint a Taoiseach or prime minister.

One party that gained in the vote was Sinn Fein, once seen as the political voice of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.

It has ridden a wave of support since adopting the anti-austerity mantle in the south and could nearly double its seats.

"We're into a new era, we have seen in this election a seismic change," leader Gerry Adams said after he was re-elected in his County Louth constituency, close to the border with Northern Ireland.

He said Fianna Fail and Fine Gael "should get into bed together" in a political coalition, which would make Sinn Fein the main opposition party. "They are natural partners, they are siamese twins who have been divided for some time," he added.

Ireland exited a bailout programme in 2013 and has become the fastest growing country in the eurozone in recent years, with predicted GDP growth of 4.5 percent in 2016.

Kenny had asked voters to return the coalition to "keep the recovery going" in the country of 4.6 million people.

But rivals said that many people had yet to feel any improvement amid a housing crisis and the continued effects of years of spending cuts and tax hikes.

Junior coalition partner Labour took the brunt of voter anger after it was seen to have betrayed its centre-left voting base.

Senior figures to lose their seats included outgoing Labour minister Alex White and Fine Gael's Alan Shatter, a former justice minister.

As the first counts indicated the depth of the slump for Fine Gael, betting company Paddy Power began offering odds of 4/7 that Kenny would resign as party leader by July.

"They weren't listening to the people, it's as simple as that," said Susan O'Brien, a horticulture worker in her early 40s.