Ireland's election has produced a parliament full of feuding factions and no obvious road to a majority government, spurring lawmakers to warn Sunday that the country could face a protracted political deadlock followed by a second election.
For the first time in Irish electoral history, the combined popular vote Friday for Ireland's two political heavyweights – the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties – fell below 50 per cent as voters infuriated by austerity measures shifted their support to a Babel of anti-government voices.
The results left parliament with at least nine factions and a legion of loose-cannon independents, few of them easy partners for a coalition government, none of them numerous enough to make a difference on their own.
"There's a sense of bewilderment, first of all. We're a long way from sitting down together and talking about what our next options are," said Regina Doherty, a Fine Gael lawmaker for Meath, northwest of Dublin.
With 12 seats in Ireland's 158-member parliament still to be filled, the ruling Fine Gael won 46 seats, longtime foe Fianna Fail 42, the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein 22 and junior government partner Labour just six. An eye-popping array of tiny parties, umbrella groups and parochial mavericks won the rest.
Leading members of Fianna Fail – which rebounded in this vote just five years after facing electoral ruin for nearly bankrupting the country – said they would find it extremely hard to forge any coalition that keeps Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael in power.
"I've just fought a difficult three-week campaign during which people said to me they want rid of this government, they don't want Enda Kenny as taoiseach anymore," said Fianna Fail lawmaker Willie O'Dea, using the formal Gaelic title for Ireland's premier. "Our supporting a Fine Gael government would be doing exactly what we told our voters we wouldn't do."
The trouble is, Ireland's voters have never produced a parliament like this before. And there's no third party strong enough to give Fianna Fail or Fine Gael a parliamentary majority of at least 79 seats. Both parties have ruled out working with Sinn Fein, the only party that could get either of them close.
When the new parliament convenes March 10 to elect a prime minister to appoint a government, both Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin say they will put themselves forward as rival candidates.
Failure to create a new government would mean Kenny's 5-year-old coalition with Labour continues indefinitely in a lame-duck caretaker role.
While government collapses and grueling coalition negotiations are par for the course in many parts of Europe – Spain has gone the past two months without a government deal; Belgium spent much of 2014 without one, too – this would be highly unusual in Ireland. The country prizes its political stability as a central selling point for the approximately 1,000 multinational companies that underpin Ireland's exports-driven economy.
The Irish, whose closest trading partners are Britain and the United States, have made a rapid economic turnaround under Kenny to lead European growth once again. But the government faces serious challenges to improve health and housing and ease the pressure on debt-struck households.
Leading lawmakers in both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael said they cannot see how two parties so long committed to tearing each other down can form a united Cabinet that survives for months, never mind five years. The two parties evolved from opposite sides of the civil war that followed Ireland's 1922 independence from Britain. Between them, they have led every Irish government over the past nine decades but have never shared power.
Ireland has not suffered back-to-back elections since 1982, but that spectre loomed. Finance Minister Michael Noonan of Fine Gael, speaking from an election centre in his native Limerick, said: "We may all be back here again very shortly."
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said his party has told grass-roots activists to prepare for a second vote in 2016.
"We have put our people on a continued election standby," said Adams, who shifted his power base from Belfast to the border district of Louth in 2011 to lead his Northern Ireland-centric party's growth in the Republic of Ireland. "We said to our people: We don't know how this is going to turn out. Stay on alert. Take your posters down and save them. They could be going up again very soon."
An editorial cartoon in the Sunday Independent newspaper captured the national mood. In it, a reporter asks the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaders: "What next?"
Kenny replies: "Stable chaos."
Martin counters: "Chaotic stability."