Charles Haughey, breathing hope and confidence into a dispirited Irish electorate, seems set to take over from Dr. Garret FitzGerald as the Irish Republic's next prime minister. In what amounts to a ``get the rascals out'' mood, the electorate has turned sharply against the two coalition partners in the present government. Votes for the Fine Gael party headed by Dr. FitzGerald collapsed quite markedly, while voter reaction has been even sharper against the Labour Party, the junior partner in the coalition.
At this writing, it appears that for the first time in a decade, Ireland will be freed from the burden of coalition government which has weakened successive governments' resolve to handle the country's mounting economic difficulties. Because of Ireland's complicated voting system, the final results were not expected until late today.
Even at this early stage, Mr. Haughey, who heads the Fianna Fail party, seems sure of obtaining the required 81 seats in the D'ail, the lower house of Parliament, to form a government on his own.
The election is noteworthy for the strong performance of Desmond O'Malley's right-of-center Progressive Democratic Party, formed only 14 months ago. The party, which was expected to eat into the Fianna Fail vote, has in fact drawn support away from Fine Gael. The Progressive Democrats are also expected to win at least 10, and possibly as many as 16, D'ail seats. Yet the likelihood of its forming an alternative government with Fine Gael now seems unlikely, in view of the sharp drop in Fine Gael's support.
What has added piquancy to an initially lackluster campaign has been the exceptionally high number of ``don't know'' votes - in some areas as high as 20 percent.
Political observers here say it is as much a reflection on political alienation in Ireland as a feeling of apathy that neither the two main parties, Fine Gael or Fianna Fail, can resolve the country's deep-seated economic problems.
One Dublin shopper too agitated to give her name and genuinely in a state of anguish as to how she would vote said, ``Don't ask me. Please don't ask me. I'm too confused to know how to vote.''
Tom Philpott, a civil servant, also said he could not make up his mind, but he knew for certain it would not be Fine Gael. ``They said there would be cutbacks at first, then things would get better. But things instead of getting better have only got worse,'' he says.
The country's staggering economic problems have been at the forefront of the election. One out of five is unemployed; one third of the country lives on welfare; taxes take a 58 percent bite out of salaries over $14,000; and 80 percent of the revenues from personal taxes go to servicing the country's ballooning international debt.
But invariably with Irish elections, personalities count too.
Fianna Fail's Haughey, who evokes as much affection as dislike because he combines charm and abrasiveness in about equal measure, has run a populist campaign in which he exudes a ``leave it to me, you can trust me'' impression that he can get the country back on its feet.
When he was delayed up to an hour at an election rally in Kilkenny, a voice over the loudspeaker apologized to the Fianna Fail supporters and explained: ``It's very hard to drive through the dark.'' He was referring to the thick daytime fog, but he could just as easily have been speaking of the enormous challenges facing the country, or of the risks to Haughey's career.
Haughey, the ``great survivor,'' has twice before been prime minister, though he also failed to collect the majority vote in the last two elections.
Mr. O'Malley, Haughey's arch-rival and Ireland's most popular individual politician, rallied the ``yuppie'' vote behind him. Conservative on economic issues such as reducing taxes and public spending, he is liberal on social issues, such as contraception, abortion, and divorce in a Roman Catholic-dominated society.
In 1985, O'Malley lost the Fianna Fail leadership struggle to Haughey, who subsequently expelled him for supporting contraception, which was against party policy.
O'Malley's new party is an attempt to break the traditional mold of Irish politics in which the differences between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are not ideological, but historical.
More than 60 years ago, Fianna Fail, the Republicans, fought a civil war against Fine Gael's signing of a treaty with Britain which ushered in the Irish Free State. Fianna Fail could not accept continued British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, which explains Haughey's unwillingness to accept the constitutional implications of the November 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. The accord allows Northern Ireland to retain its current status as a province of the United Kingdom, so long as the majority there gives its consent.