Around three million Irish voters are to decide between continuity and change. After ten years in power, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his centre-right coalition are neck and neck in polls with the centre-left opposition going into the parliamentary elections.
Ahern is still a popular figure after two terms of office. His Fianna Fail party is looking for a third armed with an impressive economic record and claims to have turned the country around: “When we first came to government 10 years ago, Ireland faced tremendous challenges. So much has changed in the last decade, in many ways it has been the Irish decade.”
Ahern was elected Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, five weeks after his friend Tony Blair came to power in 1997. He can count on the ‘Bertie Factor’- the fact people like him, but also his successful efforts in the Northern Irish peace process.
And the Irish economy is one of the envies of Europe. The Celtic Tiger as it’s known has seen growth climb to twice the EU average. Unemployment- which was 18 percent in the 1980s- is now, at 4.3 percent, the Union’s lowest. And that thanks to some business-friendly tax rates.
Despite the good economic figures, opposition leader Enda Kenny is in full voice: “Today marks the beginning of the end of 10 years of Fianna Fail and PD broken promises and complacency.” Kenny points to rising rent prices, creaking infrastructure, a lack of doctors and poor public services as the evidence that change is needed.
With the election so much in the balance, it could well be the small parties that make the difference. The Green Party and Sinn Fein could win up to ten seats out of the 166 available. The two main coalitions have- up to now- refused to integrate Sinn Fein and its leader Gerry Adams.
However if, as forecast, the result is close, coalition talks will be key in deciding the outcome of these parliamentary elections that, with the leaders’ personalities at the forefront, have something of the presidential about them.