IRISH Prime Minister Brian Cowen has conceded defeat in the general election, after his ruling Fianna Fail party was crushed by voters angry over the collapse of the economy and an EU-IMF bailout.
Mr Cowen said he would talk this weekend with the leader of the main opposition Fine Gael party, Enda Kenny, which is expected to form a new government, likely in coalition with the leftist Labour party.
“Clearly today there wasn’t support for our party in great numbers. We accept as democrats the outcome,” Mr Cowen said after his government become the first to fall as a result of the debt crisis in the 17-country eurozone.
Speaking to the RTE state broadcaster, he said it had been a “very, very difficult day” after exit polls suggested Fianna Fail would slump to its worst ever election result and lose two-thirds of its parliamentary seats.
Fine Gael secured 36.1 per cent in the RTE/Millward Brown Lansdowne exit polls, while Labour was on course for its best ever result with 20.5 per cent.
Meanwhile the republican Sinn Fein also appeared to be having a good night as president Gerry Adams won a seat in the Irish parliament for the first time, and analysts predicted the republican party would double its five seats.
The incoming Fine Gael-led government will be expected to try to renegotiate the $115 billion bailout agreed by Mr Cowen’s government with the European Union and International Monetary Fund in November.
The deal was widely viewed as a humiliation, just three years after Ireland’s roaring “Celtic Tiger” economy was the envy of the world, and brought with it austerity measures that put another burden on the recession-hit nation.
Mr Kenny, a former teacher, has vowed to amend the terms of the loans and restore some of Ireland’s shattered pride, although big obstacles lie ahead and he has admitted there is no quick fix to the nation’s woes.
Speaking to reporters after winning re-election in his western constituency of Mayo, the 59-year-old promised to bridge “the divide that was created between the people and the government” and to get Ireland back on its feet.
“We intend to send a clear message around the world that this country is open for business, that this country has given my party a massive endorsement to provide a stable and strong government,” he said.
Fine Gael looks on course to win about 72 seats out of the 166-seat Dail, the lower house of parliament, according to analysts and Fine Gael officials.
“It’s unlikely that we’ll reach a majority or be able to govern with independents, so the probability is a coalition with Labour party,” said Fine Gael lawmaker Leo Varadkar.
Earlier, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore told the broadcaster his party had made a “breakthrough” in the election and said a coalition with Fine Gael was the “most likely outcome” of the election.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, who took over at the head of his party after Cowen quit last month under pressure over his handling over the economy, congratulated Mr Kenny on his “outstanding success”.
“We were aware that we had a huge challenge in this election for a variety of reasons. There’s no question but it’s been a very disappointing day for us. But I’m looking ahead… we can rebuild,” he said.
Former minister Noel Dempsey said he would be happy if the party emerged with more than 20 seats, less than a third of its current total. “It’s looking pretty grim, I have to say,” Mr Dempsey said.
Results began to trickle in overnight (AEDT) but due to the complicated counting required for Ireland’s single transferable vote system, the full picture is not likely to emerge until later today.
Michael Marsh, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, predicted Fine Gael would win about 72 seats, Labour at least 38 and Fianna Fail just 20, adding that the number of independent lawmakers was likely to increase.