DUBLIN — The opposition Fine Gael party was poised to lead Ireland's next government, according to an exit poll released Saturday, a historic political upheaval after a real estate collapse brought the country to the edge of bankruptcy.
The exit poll from national broadcaster RTE showed Fine Gael with 36.1 percent of the first-preference votes, a figure that would put them in power but not capture a majority of seats in the Dail, the lower house of parliament. The poll was released an hour before the actual counting of ballots from Friday's national election began.
Irish voters punished the governing Fianna Fail party, angry over 13 percent unemployment, tax hikes, wage cuts and a humiliating bailout that Ireland had to accept from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
The exit poll showed Fianna Fail sinking to a shocking 15.1 percent support. In elections going back to 1932, it had never won less than 39 percent.
"However bad people thought it would get for Fianna Fail, nobody thought it would get this bad," said Michael Marsh, professor of comparative political behavior at Trinity College Dublin. "That is highly significant."
The Labour Party, Fine Gael's likely coalition partner, had 20.5 percent, which would be its best performance ever.
"The political landscape of Ireland is completely and utterly redrawn," said Roger Jupp, the chairman of Millward Brown Lansdowne, which conducted the poll for RTE.
The exit poll showed a range of more than 200 independent and minor party candidates with 15.5 percent support, while Sinn Fein — the party that supported the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland — had 10.1 percent. Sinn Fein won 2 percent of the vote in 2002 and 6 percent in 2007.
Fine Gael ("tribe of the Irish") and Fianna Fail ("soldiers of destiny"), were born from opposing sides in Ireland's civil war of the 1920s, and many see little difference between them on the issues. Fianna Fail, however, was leading the government when the nation's property boom collapsed in 2007, and made the decision that taxpayers should bail out Ireland's failing banks.
Brian Cowen, the outgoing prime minister, had fallen to record low popularity and resigned as Fianna Fail party leader even before the campaign. Still, if the results hold, Fianna Fail stands to be the largest opposition party in the Dail, where it can criticize every unpopular move that a Fine Gael-Labour government has to make.
The poll was based on face-to-face interviews with 3,500 voters at polling stations on Friday, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 points. In the last election in 2007, the exit poll numbers were within a point of the official results.
The new government, like the last, will be constrained by the terms negotiated for the €67.5 billion ($92 billion) credit line from the European Central Bank and the IMF.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, who will be the next prime minister, has pledged to try to negotiate easier terms for repaying the loan. He has also promised to create 100,000 new jobs in five years, and to make holders of senior bonds in Ireland's nationalized banks shoulder some of the losses.
Colette Lavelle, 46, confessed to modest hopes after casting her vote in County Mayo.
"It's very bad at the moment, hopefully it will improve, but not over the next five years," said Lavelle, who is unemployed. "We really want to get rid of the government we have at the moment because they're all corrupt and spent all the money we had."
Counting of ballots is expected to continue through Sunday as officials work through Ireland's proportional representation system. In each round of counting, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and those ballots go to the candidates marked as the second choice.
The process continues until all the seats are filled; Irish constituencies have three, four or five seats.