A detailed exit poll for Ireland's election has found that most voters spurned the coalition government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny and the country faces either a hung parliament with no workable majority – or an alliance between the traditional polar opposites of political life.
The poll by Irish broadcasters RTE was revealed hours ahead of Saturday's start to a ballot count expected to run into Sunday.
The poll says Mr. Kenny's Fine Gael party has received 24.8 percent of first-preference votes – much lower than any opinion poll during Ireland's three-week election campaign – while the party's age-old enemy Fianna Fail has won 21.1 percent.
Fianna Fail and Fine Gael trace their roots to opposite sides in the 1922-23 civil war that followed Ireland's independence from Britain. They have never worked together in government, and both Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin ruled out the prospect of partnership.
The poll involved face-to-face surveys of 4,283 people who had just voted in all 40 constituencies at 225 polling stations. It had an unusually precise error margin of 1.5 percentage points.
If the poll findings are borne out in official results, the obvious question is how Kenny, leader of the largest party, can cobble together a parliamentary majority from other parties.
The poll found that voters gave Kenny's current coalition partner, the left-wing Labour Party, just 7.1 percent of first-preference votes.
Typically an Irish government needs to win more than 40 percent of first-preference votes to command a majority in Ireland's 158-seat parliament.
The projected results make this difficult, if not impossible, for Fine Gael without Fianna Fail. Both center-ground parties have ruled out cooperation with the party expected to finish third, the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein.
Labour Party strategist Derek McDowell said the projected results reflected an electorate hostile to Ireland's three establishment parties following the country's humiliating 2010 bailout under a Fianna Fail-led government and years of tough austerity measures under the current Fine Gael-Labour coalition. While Ireland exited the bailout and returned to Europe-leading growth following the Fine Gael-Labour election triumph of 2011, much of the public remains saddled with higher taxes, poor public services, negative mortgages and weaker wages.
"One of the reasons we did so well in 2011 was because people accepted we needed a strong government to get us out of an extraordinary mess. There isn't any such acceptance now," Mr. McDowell said.
The poll found that Sinn Fein received 16 percent of first-preference votes, sufficient to double its number of lawmakers — but not enough to give either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail a majority, even if either cut a deal with the Irish Republican Army-linked party.
Michael Marsh, a political scientist at Trinity College Dublin, said that based on the poll data and past electoral trends, he expects Fine Gael to win 47 seats, Fianna Fail 37, Sinn Fein 27, Labour nine, and a dizzying array of largely left-wing small parties and independents the rest.
A bare parliamentary majority requires maintaining an alliance of at least 79 lawmakers, though stable Irish governments typically require a larger cushion of support to avoid crises and collapse.
The results from Friday's election could take days to compile and confirm because Ireland uses a complex system of proportional representation designed to ensure that smaller parties and independents win seats. Voters are permitted to rate candidates in order of preference, and this requires electoral officials to tabulate results in several laborious rounds.