A woman casts her ballot at the St Anthony's Primary School polling station in Castlebar, western Ireland, on Friday. Picture: AFP
A woman casts her ballot at the St Anthony's Primary School polling station in Castlebar, western Ireland, on Friday. Picture: AFP

DUBLIN — Ireland voted on Friday in an election that could make it the latest eurozone country to face political instability, as anger over austerity erodes support for traditional parties.

Families with children, people on their way to work and pensioners with walking sticks filed into schools and church buildings transformed into polling stations on Friday. Polling stations were scheduled to stay open until 10pm GMT on Friday.

Voters were greeted with the list of candidates standing in their constituency, which they were to rank in preference under Ireland’s proportional representation system, before slipping their papers into locked ballot boxes.

"They won’t make the majority that’s needed," said architect Briain Colgan, after voting in a south Dublin constituency where established parties were pitted against a spectrum of independents and new groups in a race for four seats.

"It will be a mismatch of people. We’ll be back here again in nine months," he said.

Accountant Suzanne Handley said she feared a splintered vote would make governing difficult. "What we need is a government that’s going to be strong enough to stand together."

More than 2,000 voters who are residents of islands off the west coast of Ireland have already had the chance to cast their votes, with ballot boxes transported by ferry and helicopter to ensure they were counted in time.

The first indications of results were expected with the release of an exit poll as counting got under way on Saturday morning, a process likely to continue all weekend.

Opinion surveys have indicated that the coalition led by Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael may struggle to form a majority for a second term due to a potential collapse in support for junior partners Labour, whose centre-left base has been alienated by austerity cuts.

Possible postelection scenarios include Mr Kenny cobbling together a coalition with a mix of independents and small parties, a rerun of the election or a historic "grand coalition" between his Fine Gael party and old rivals Fianna Fail — bitter adversaries since Ireland’s 1920s civil war.

All parties will be mindful of a deadline of March 10, when the new parliament is due to meet and nominate a new Taoiseach, or prime minister.

Mr Kenny hopes that he will be reappointed to the job, and cast his vote in Castlebar in his rural constituency in western Ireland.

But Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who voted in his constituency close to the border of Northern Ireland where the party has its power base, is hoping the party’s anti-austerity campaigning will deliver an election breakthrough.

Under the outgoing coalition, Ireland became the eurozone’s champion of economic growth after exiting in 2013 a bailout programme brought in, following a deep financial crisis.

But there is anger over tax increases and cuts to services, with many voters pointing to increased homelessness and poverty and asking: "What recovery?" Politicians not affiliated to parties, new group the Anti Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit, and left-wing party Sinn Fein are expected to attract more support amid a wave of anger over increased poverty and homelessness.

Support for Fianna Fail, the party most associated with Ireland’s economic crash, has recovered slightly since it was punished at the last poll in 2011, though Mr Kenny has rejected the idea of doing a deal with its leader, Micheal Martin.

In his final public comments before polls opened, Mr Kenny urged voters to re-elect his Fine Gael party, with Labour as junior partner, saying: "We’ve come a long way into the right direction, but we need to finish the job."

Maura Adshead, political lecturer at the University of Limerick, said there was "vociferous anger" among those who felt excluded from the "recovery" Mr Kenny made the centrepiece of his campaign.

"For a large cohort of people it’s not getting better; they are still in very desperate circumstances," Ms Adshead said.

"The recovery that the Taoiseach keeps talking about doesn’t seem to happen where we are," said Michael Gallagher, who runs a tile-selling business in County Louth, north of Dublin.

"I don’t trust any of the politicians but it’s a bit the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t."

AFP