DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland faced political turmoil Sunday as an exit poll from the weekend’s parliamentary election suggested that Sinn Fein, a left-wing party committed to reunification of the island, finished in a virtual dead heat with the two parties that have governed since the country won independence almost a century ago.
While ballot counting remained underway, the poll indicated that Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s centrist Fine Gael party, centrist rival Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein all received about 22% of first preference votes. The survey, conducted by pollster Ipsos MRBI for national broadcaster RTE, the Irish Times, TG4 television and University College Dublin, has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.3 percentage points.
The predicted outcome means some type of coalition government is almost inevitable, with Sinn Fein likely to be a central player in the negotiations to form one.
Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have until now refused to work with Sinn Fein because of its links to the Irish Republican Army. The centrist parties say Sinn Fein failed to repudiate the IRA’s role in the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Jonathan Evershed, a postdoctoral researcher in government and politics at University College Cork, said the centrist parties’ resolve may weaken as politicians reckon with the reality of Sinn Fein’s strong showing.
“Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin but will face major pressure now to row back from that,’’ Evershed told The Associated Press. “Based on emerging numbers, there is no route to government that doesn’t involve working with Sinn Féin in one way or another.’’
It is still unclear how many seats each party would have in Ireland’s 160-seat parliament, known as the Dail, because the country uses a proportional representation system known as the single transferable vote.
The system requires multiple rounds of counting as votes are redistributed based on voters’ second and third-choice preferences once candidates cross the threshold for election or are eliminated from consideration.
Early results reported Sunday evening showed Sinn Fein won 13 of the first 14 seats decided. The Green Party took the other.
Despite the closeness of the result forecast in the exit poll, Sinn Fein is in a weaker position than its two main rivals because it fielded only 42 candidates, limiting the number of seats it can win. That could make it difficult for Sinn Fein to find enough left-leaning allies among smaller parties and independents to form a workable government.