Ireland’s Varadkar Risks Defeat as Voters Head to Polls


(Bloomberg) — Ireland goes to the polls Saturday, with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s party facing a struggle to retain power after almost a decade in office.

Voting starts at 7 a.m. and finishes at 10pm. State broadcaster RTE will release an exit poll immediately after voting ends. Counting is set to begin Sunday, with a clear picture of the outcome expected to emerge around midday.

During the campaign, Fine Gael highlighted the premier’s success in keeping the country’s border with Northern Ireland free of checks after Brexit. That, however, seems to be falling flat amid voter discontent over a housing shortage, an ailing health service and a general sense that the privately-educated, former doctor has failed to connect with voters.

Brexit Halo Fades for Irish Leader Now Fighting for Survival

Fianna Fail, which oversaw the 2008 economic crash and the international bailout that followed, is set to return to power, polls indicate. Sinn Fein, the left-wing nationalist party, once the political wing of the IRA terrorist group, is also set to make gains.

“A government led by one of the two establishment parties, with minority support from the other, seems to be the most likely outcome,” Bert Colijn, an economist with ING Groep NV said. That “would largely mean continuity from a financial and economic policy perspective.”

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, 59, has a 96% shot of heading the government, odds at bookmaker Paddy Power signal. Varadkar has a 6% chance of returning to power after the ballot.

Sinn Fein’s performance may prove a complicating factor. With 25%, the party led in the final poll of the campaign, published by the Irish Times on Feb. 3.

However, the party is running only 42 candidates so it can’t win anywhere enough seats needed to become the dominant force in the 160-strong parliament.

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Fianna Fail will take over 50 seats, Fine Gael around 35 and Sinn Fein, about 30, according to Eoin O’Malley, a politics professor at Dublin City University. With no party coming near the 80 mark, the Greens and Labour Party are potential kingmakers.

Martin, a former foreign and health minister, has shifted Fianna Fail to center-left in preparation for coalition talks, said O’Malley.

“That gives him a much easier route to power,” he said. “It makes it more straightforward to do a deal with Labour and the Greens.”

Late Swing?

Varadkar is banking on a late swing to save his job, and the party has attacked Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein’s economic policies as it scrambles to hold on to power.

“Some parties are promising you everything — to go wild on the state’s credit card, ignore the bill, with interest, that will come in the post,” Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said in a final appeal to voters. “Their attitude is that someone else will pay for it.”

For now, it seems that’s falling on deaf ears. To his counterparts across Europe, Varadkar, 41, is the cool head who delivered a viable agreement that kept the land border with the U.K. province of Northern Ireland free of checkpoints.

Strong Economy

The openly gay son of an Indian immigrant, he also completed a social revolution by seeing through historic abortion legislation. That was all while cementing the Irish economy’s position as one of the continent’s strongest and getting unemployment down toward the lowest in a decade, achievements many in Ireland also acknowledge.

Yet, opposition parties paint Varadkar as aloof and out of touch, and that’s striking a chord with some voters.

Hugh Reilly, 62, said he’s positive about Varadkar’s background and sexuality, but adds the Fine Gael leader “has a huge image issue.”

“He doesn’t connect with the ordinary people,” said Reilly, from Cavan, about 100 kilometers northwest of Dublin. “I think that is in some ways working against him here now, particularly against the background of the housing crisis.”

–With assistance from Rachel McGovern.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Flanagan in Dublin at pflanagan23@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ambereen Choudhury at achoudhury@bloomberg.net, Dara Doyle, Andrew Davis

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