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Irish republican Sinn Fein party leader Mary Lou McDonald, centre, celebrates with her supporters after she takes the Dublin Central constituency on the first count in Dublin, Ireland, on Feb. 9, 2020.


Ireland’s nationalist party Sinn Fein has ridden a wave of anti-establishment anger and scored a historic election breakthrough that will reshape the country’s political landscape.

Early results from Saturday’s election show that Sinn Fein is set to win about 36 seats in parliament and finish first in the popular vote, nearly doubling its vote share from the 2016 election.

Under Ireland’s complex system of proportional representation, the final seat count won’t be known for a couple of days. But as of Sunday evening, Sinn Fein’s tally had already stunned pundits and upset the dominance of the two main centre-right parties – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – which have run the country for nearly a century.

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“I think it’s fair to say that this election has been historic,” Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou McDonald said after winning her seat in Dublin by a huge margin. “It’s something of a revolution in the ballot box.”

The result is a far cry from Sinn Fein’s days as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, which once made it so toxic that party leaders weren’t allowed to appear on Irish television or radio during the decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. Since becoming leader in 2018, Ms. McDonald has managed to move the party away from its controversial past and tap into voter angst about growing inequality, an acute housing shortage and a crumbling health-care system.

“This is a very dramatic election,” said David Farrell, head of the school of politics and international relations at University College Dublin. “It’s dramatic for the simple reason that we’ve gone from a two-party system to a three-party system.” He noted that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael used to capture roughly 80 per cent of the total vote, but that has now dropped to around 40 per cent.

Fianna Fail is expected to win the most seats but only sightly more than Fine Gael and Sinn Fein. The latter fielded far fewer candidates. No party will come close to securing the 80 seats needed for a majority. This means there will be weeks of coalition negotiations among party leaders, including representatives of several smaller parties that also did better than expected.

The election results raise questions about the future of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who leads Fine Gael. Unless his party can lead a coalition, which most observers believe is unlikely, he will have to step down once a new government is in place.

Mr. Varadkar didn’t even win the most votes in his riding of Dublin West, although he is expected to be re-elected as one of the constituency’s four members of parliament. No sitting Prime Minister has ever come second in his own riding.

That’s a remarkable repudiation of Mr. Varadkar and Fine Gael, considering that Ireland’s economy is booming and unemployment is at a 13-year low. But many voters didn’t feel that they had benefited from the good times and they blamed the Fine Gael government.

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On Sunday, Mr. Varadkar acknowledged that there was a desire for change. “When you are in government for two terms, nine years, it’s very difficult to convince people that you’re change-makers,” he said.

The election was “a version of the populist wave that we’re seeing across Europe,” said Dr. Farrell who cited left-wing populists Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece as examples. “A lot of the traits that you would expect to find in left-wing populism are the traits that are revealing themselves in support for Sinn Fein. It’s the people feeling left behind.”

Ms. McDonald enticed voters with a platform that included eliminating property taxes, freezing rents for three years and building 100,000 social-housing units. She also promised to enshrine the right to housing in the country’s constitution and increase taxes on the wealthy. And she has vowed to push for a referendum on reunification with Northern Ireland, making that a condition of joining any governing coalition.

The question now is whether any of the three parties can form a stable government. During the campaign Mr. Varadkar and Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin ruled out a coalition with Sinn Fein. Mr. Varadkar stuck to that line on Sunday but Mr. Martin left the door open.

“The key issue for me is that the country must come first,” he told RTE television. Ms. McDonald said she wanted to form a government with the smaller parties but was open to talking to the two big parties. “Our objective is to be in government,” she insisted on Sunday.

She’s likely to rue the decision not to run more candidates. Heading into the election Sinn Fein wasn’t expecting to do well, particularly after a dismal showing at the local level last May. As a result, Ms. McDonald cut back on the party’s nominations. Analysts say Sinn Fein would have easily won more seats than Fianna Fail and Fine Gael on Saturday if it had run more candidates.

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