Is the man from Dragon's Den Ireland's next president?

He was leading the polling, but a damaging allegation this week could have hurt Seán Gallagher's chances of becoming Ireland's next president.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
Irish presidential candidate Seán Gallagher waves to supporters after voting at Blackrock National school near Dundalk on Thursday.

Ireland went to the polls today to choose a new president from a colorful cast of candidates that includes a reality TV star, a former Irish Republican Army leader, and a gay rights campaigner.

Five men and two women are standing for what is, officially at least, the highest office in the land. But Ireland's presidency has no real power – something the public appears to understand only too well.Turnout was low according to reports from polling stations, averaging around 20 percent in some areas at 5 p.m. tonight.

Executive power in Ireland, a parliamentary republic, resides with the Cabinet in the lower house, the Dáil, but the presidency has symbolic power and this is being exploited for all it's worth by the candidates. Each claims to want to shine a light amid the economic gloom that pervades the nation.

The man to beat is an unlikely figure for political office: a farmer turned property developer and TV star: Seán Gallagher, a businessman and star of "Dragons' Den," a reality TV show about entrepreneurs.

"Seán Gallagher has surprised the Dublin media bubble but he has the common touch, something that can be seen in the numbers of his Facebook fans," says Ciarán McMahon, a psychologist at the Dublin Business School who has been studying the impact of social networks during the election campaign.

Many feel Mr. Gallagher represents Ireland's transformation in the past two decades, though supporters and opponents mean different things when they say that.

Cloudy sky

Gallagher's candidacy came under a cloud Monday, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, one of his opponents, claimed that Gallagher had fund-raised for the Fianna Fáil party.

Fianna Fáil, long the dominant political party in Irish life, failed to stand a candidate, such was the likelihood of humiliation at the polls. Many see Gallagher as a proxy candidate for a party that was trounced at the general election on February 25.

The allegations linking Gallagher to Fianna Fáil, along with questions about his business and accounting practices, were aired on a televised debate Monday. There hasn't been an opinion pol since, so it's difficult to tell if he has been damaged.

"I think the [real] winners, politically, will be Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin," said David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin, saying many had written Fianna Fáil off and that a victory for Mr Gallagher would be a major coup for the party.

"[The] Labor [party] will come out pretty well, too," he said.

Gay Mitchell, candidate of the main governing party, the conservative Fine Gael, is trailing badly in opinion polls, likely to come fifth, a result that some feel could damage party morale.

Michael D. Higgins, candidate of the Labor party, a minority partner in government, is expected to do well and had been the front-runner before Gallagher surged ahead in opinion polls – a status he now hopes to recover in the actual vote.

Rounding out the field

Sinn Féin's McGuinness is tipped to come third, a showing that would be a major victory for the left-leaning party linked to the now disbanded IRA. Mr. McGuinness's record as a leader of the IRA has been the subject of much scrutiny during the campaign.

McGuinness is currently deputy first minister in the power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland. His move into politics in the Republic of Ireland is seen as symbolic of the party's growing ambitions south of the border.

At the beginning of the campaign, opinion polls were led by David Norris, a noted gay rights campaigner who forced Ireland to decriminalize homosexuality, suing the country in the European Court of Human Rights.

But Mr. Norris's campaign faltered after it was revealed he had written letters to the Israeli judiciary, pleading leniency on behalf of his former lover Ezra Nawi, who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a Palestinian teenager.

Ireland, still reeling from a series of child abuse scandals involving the Catholic church, turned its back on Norris, a hitherto popular orator and public figure known more for his loud celebrations of James Joyce than for politics, despite having been a member of Ireland's upper house of parliament, the Seanad (senate), for 25 years.

Other candidates include Mary Davis, known for her work with the Special Olympics and "Dana" Rosemary Scallon, a conservative Catholic pop singer who holds dual US and Irish citizenship.

Ms. Scallon added some last-minute drama to the campaign when her husband, Damien Scallon, suggested that a near-miss on the highway may have been caused by someone intentionally slashing the tires of their car in an attempt to "injure us or murder us."

Experts say the damage was likely caused by driving on a flat tire and police have dismissed the possibility of foul play.

Jeff Colley, who lives in suburban Dublin, voted today at 2 p.m. local time.

"I don't really think it's important. I'm more voting against someone than for one. There's a sense that the president represents the country, so you don't want someone who's an embarrassment," he said.

On the same ballot, voters are also being given two referendum questions: should the government be able to lower judges' pay and should the parliament be given additional powers to hold inquires.

The governing Fine Gael and Labor parties have urged a 'yes' vote on both questions.

Polls close at 10 p.m. local time. Results are expected Saturday.

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