updated 5/24/2007 8:29:54 AM ET 2007-05-24T12:29:54

Voters began casting their ballots Thursday in an election that analysts say is likely to return Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to power, but with new, left-wing partners in government.

Ahern, a Dubliner with common-man appeal who has governed Ireland through a decade of economic boom and social upheaval, has kept his Fianna Fail party in power for the past 10 years with support from the fiscally conservative Progressive Democrats.

All opinion polls and electoral experts agree that Ahern, 55, is certain to succeed in defending his party’s 75-year record of winning the most seats in the Dail Eireann parliament. The question is whether Fianna Fail can maintain a sufficient edge over Ireland’s other center-ground party, Fine Gael, and be in the strongest position to form a coalition afterward.

‘The country’s going well’
As the first of 3 million registered voters began casting their ballots Thursday, many said they were sticking with Fianna Fail — chiefly because Ireland remains in a 14-year run of exceptional economic fortune, the so-called Celtic Tiger.

“I just can’t see any good reason to kick Bertie out. The country’s going well, and the other lot have no real credibility or experience to suggest they could do better,” said Gerry Carroll, a lawyer who voted in Ahern’s own Dublin Central district.

Since the mid-1990s, Ireland has reversed more than a century of chronic emigration and unemployment. Today’s Ireland is a major European hub for more than 1,000 multinational companies, is the world’s No. 1 exporter of software, and has become a magnet for immigration from Eastern Europe.

But the four-week election campaign also revealed that Ireland is increasingly troubled by the down side of success: tensions over immigration, exorbitant living costs and overloaded public services. Such concerns mean that the smaller party in the next government is far more likely to be from the left, not the Progressive Democrats, who gave Ahern’s regime a solidly anti-tax, pro-private enterprise hue.

The man who wants to replace Ahern as premier, Fine Gael party leader Enda Kenny, has promised to expand hospital services and solve chronic overcrowding, fund free medical care for children under 5, and hire 2,000 more police.

Fine Gael, perennially the No. 2 party, has campaigned on a painstakingly negotiated joint platform with the left-of-center Labour Party. Its leader, Pat Rabbitte, is a former Marxist renowned as one of Ireland’s most articulate politicians.

'Years of cynicism'
Kenny, 56, insists he will not run for office again if he fails to achieve his campaign goals, and contrasts this with Ahern’s refusal to fire anybody in his government for acts of incompetence or ethical failures.

“After years of cynicism about politics and politicians, after years of deception and broken promises, I believe it’s time a politician stepped up to the line and took responsibility for their actions in government,” he said in his final appeal to voters.

A stable government requires support from at least 83 lawmakers in the 166-member Dail Eireann. Neither side appears able to reach this goal without support elsewhere.

An Irish Times newspaper analysis Wednesday forecast the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat government would return just 70 lawmakers, while the Fine Gael-Labour alternative would reach 69.

Analysts agree that adding the Green Party to the Fine Gael-Labour mix, creating a so-called “rainbow” coalition, could still fall four seats short of a majority.

Sinn Fein could end up with upper hand
The party that could end up holding the balance of power, the nationalist Sinn Fein, says it wants to cut a deal with Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein is pushing to end its longtime fringe status in the Irish Republic and, with a highly motivated electoral machine, appears poised to double its current number of seats to 10.

But Ahern — who pushed hard for Sinn Fein to gain power this month in a new government for the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland — says he will not let the Irish Republican Army-linked party achieve the same breakthrough south of the border.

“Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein is not going to happen,” Ahern said, citing its hard-left economic platform rather than its IRA links as the barrier.

The only surefire combination for a parliamentary majority is Fianna Fail and Rabbitte’s Labour.

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