Austerity-weary Ireland votes in uncertain election

Dublin (AFP) - Voting got under way in Ireland on Friday in an election which could see it become the latest eurozone country to face political instability as anger against hardship and austerity erodes support for traditional parties.

Voters began casting ballots at 0700 GMT in schools, sports clubs and church buildings transformed for the day into election centres.

Over 2,000 voters who are residents of islands off the west coast of Ireland have already had the chance to cast their votes, with ballot boxes transported by ferry and helicopter to ensure they are counted in time.

The first indications of results are expected as counting gets under way on Saturday morning, a process likely to continue into Sunday.

Opinion surveys have indicated that the coalition led by Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael may struggle to form a majority for a second term due to a potential collapse in support for junior partners Labour, whose centre-left base has been alienated by austerity cuts.

Under the coalition, Ireland became the eurozone's champion of economic growth after exiting in 2013 a bailout programme brought in following a deep financial crisis.

But there is anger over tax increases and cuts to services, with many voters pointing to increased homelessness and poverty and asking: "What recovery?"

"The last time, I voted for them but never again," said Silvia Doran, 72, who previously supported the coalition.

"They took some money off our pension three times, then they gave us a house tax and then a water tax, how can we pay that out of the pension?"

Unlike in other eurozone countries, where opposition to austerity coalesced around insurgent parties like Spain's Podemos or Syriza in Greece, the vote in Ireland has splintered.

Those expected to increase their numbers in Dail Eireann, the lower house of parliament, are a group of independent politicians not affiliated to parties, new group the Anti Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit and left-wing republican party Sinn Fein.

"I think after the election, what we will see is potentially a hung Dail," said Richard Colwell, head of Red C polling.

"It's looking increasingly unlikely that Fine Gael and Labour are going to be able to form a government on their own."

- 'Vociferous anger' -

Possible post-election scenarios include Kenny cobbling together a coalition with a mix of independents and small parties, a re-run of the election or a historic "grand coalition" between his Fine Gael party and old rivals Fianna Fail -- bitter adversaries since Ireland's 1920s civil war.

Support for Fianna Fail, the party most associated with Ireland's economic crash, has recovered slightly since it was punished at the last poll in 2011, though Kenny has rejected the idea of doing a deal with its leader Micheal Martin.

Paul Murphy, a socialist candidate for the Anti-Austerity Alliance in the Dublin South-West constituency where traditional party politicians are facing a tough fight against the insurgent left, said austerity had fired political passions.

"This is part of the same struggle that people are fighting in Portugal, in Greece... right across Europe," said Murphy, 32, as he handed out leaflets reading "tax the rich" in the commercial centre of a working class district of the town of Tallaght.

Murphy was first elected to parliament in a 2014 by-election as he led protests against an unpopular water tax that crystallised anger against austerity and sparked mass protests and refusals to pay.

"All the anger that had built up had exploded on this issue. It became the straw that broke the camel's back," Murphy said.

He faces trial on charges of false imprisonment of the Labour leader and deputy prime minister Joan Burton during a water charges protest -- a case that could result in a lengthy prison sentence.

Maura Adshead, political lecturer at the University of Limerick, said there was "vociferous anger" among those who feel excluded from the "recovery" trumpeted by politicians.

"For a large cohort of people it's not getting better, they are still in very desperate circumstances," Adshead said.

In his final public comments before polls open, Kenny urged voters to re-elect his Fine Gael party with Labour as junior partner, saying "we need to finish the job."

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