The Irish general election looks set to be heading for a surprise three-way tie, according to an exit poll.
There had been predictions that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar would struggle to maintain power, but his Fine Gael party are said to be leading the main opposition Fianna Fail – though by only 0.2%, with 22.4% of the vote versus 22.2%.
But the real surprise according to the Ipsos MRBI exit poll is that Sinn Fein – the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – are neck and neck with the two main parties on 22.3%.
Sky News’ senior Ireland correspondent David Blevins said it would be an “absolutely astounding result” for the party if it played out.
“This could be a defining moment which shows there’s been a move away from the two main parties by voters who want something different,” he said.
No party is expected to reach the 80-seat threshold to enable it to govern on its own, and a coalition administration of some complexion is almost inevitable.
The exit poll was released at 10pm on Saturday, with the final results not expected until Sunday morning.
It was the first time in more than a century that an Irish parliamentary poll had taken place on Saturday, which made turnout harder to assess as the voting pattern was different to a weekday.
Analysis: Exit poll reveals hung parliament an almost certainty
By Stephen Murphy, Ireland correspondent
An election of twists and turns looks like it could deliver a truly astonishing result.
Tonight’s Ipsos MRBI exit poll has put Ireland’s big three political parties dead level on 22% of the vote each – with huge uncertainty now overshadowing how the next government can be formed.
With Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael on 22.4%, a buoyant Sinn Fein on 22.3% and the largest opposition party Fianna Fail on 22.2%, a hung Dail (Irish parliament) is now almost certain.
The first takeaway from this is the story of Sinn Fein.
In 2016, they took 13.8% of the vote. If the exit poll is correct, it’s a fantastic result for Mary Lou McDonald in her first general election, but yet again, falls slightly short of the predicted performance in the last opinion poll.
The polling data also reveals just how strongly Ireland’s young voters backed Sinn Fein – 31.8% of 18-24-year-olds voted for the republican party, more than Fine Gael and Fianna Fail combined in that age category.
What does this mean for Leo Varadkar? It’s too early too tell.
It appears that his prediction of a late swing back to Fine Gael may be correct to an extent, but his party is still certain to lose seats. He faces a real battle to remain in office.
Fundamentally, this poll paints a picture of Irish politics realigned. Since the foundation of the Irish state, politics here was dominated by the big two, as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael took turns to lead every single Irish government.
Now their support combined has dropped to just over 40% of voters – and Sinn Fein can lay claim to being a big hitter south of the border for the first time.
But it’s equally important to bear in mind that parity in this poll does not equate to seat numbers in the new Dail when it convenes on 20 February.
Sinn Fein has simply not fielded enough candidates (at just 42) to truly capitalise on its remarkable surge in support.
Sources within the party have spoken several times of being caught on the hop with its new-found popularity among voters thirsty for change.
Fianna Fail will probably be the largest party after this election, but on these numbers may not be able to form a functioning government without striking a new confidence and supply agreement with arch-rivals Fine Gael (in reverse to the Brexit-inspired agreement of the last four years) – or by performing a dramatic U-turn and entering government with Sinn Fein.
After a lot of hype in the last few weeks, it would be fair to assume that Micheal Martin will be disappointed with his return.
A third option – and the one absolutely nobody wants – is another election within a short time frame.
Newspaper editors are ripping up the Sunday front pages. Nobody foresaw the Sinn Fein tide in GE2020 – fewer still would’ve have dreamed it could result in a three-way tie.
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