Voters in Ireland returned no clear winner in Saturday’s election, exit polls indicated.
There was a three-way split, with incumbent Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael party on 22.4 percent, Fianna Fáil on 22.3 percent, and Sinn Féin on 22.2 percent of first preference votes, according to an exit poll by Ipsos MRBI for Irish media organizations.
The result indicates the parties will struggle to form a majority, and may need a coalition of several parties to govern.
It also indicates a seismic shift in the Irish electorate. The traditionally dominant Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are now rivaled by the left-wing nationalist Sinn Féin party, which has surged in support from 14 percent in the last election in 2016.
It is set for its best-ever result, with the exit poll indicating it was by far the most popular party among young voters.
A series of smaller parties including Labour Party and the Green Party polled below 10 percent.
“This is phenomenal. Nobody expected this,” said Claire McGing, a researcher at Maynooth University. “This could be called the youthquake election.”
Once known as the political wing of the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army, Sinn Féin has steadily increased its support in the Republic of Ireland in each election since 2007. Political scientist Maura Adshead of the University of Limerick said the party appeared to be less toxic among younger voters with less experience of the conflict.
“People want an alternative,” Adshead said. “It’s easy for Sinn Féin to argue that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been in power for essentially a hundred years, and now it’s time to try something new.”
In comments to Irish national broadcaster RTÉ, Fine Gael lawmaker Martin Heydon said the poll was “encouraging” and indicated Varadkar’s party could have another chance at government.
Varadkar called the election in the hope of riding a wave of public approval over his defense of Ireland’s interests in the first stage of the Brexit negotiations
“According to this poll, Fine Gael are the biggest party going into count day. We are in the hunt in every constituency for seats and are determined to come out of this election as the largest party,” Heydon said.
“While many were keen to write us off in this election, this demonstrates that Fine Gael retains the trust and support of a large swath of the Irish public.”
Varadkar called the election in the hope of riding a wave of public approval over his defense of Ireland’s interests in the first stage of the Brexit negotiations. But any kudos was overshadowed by deep voter unhappiness over a housing shortage and public services and infrastructure that have not expanded to cope with a growing population and the strongest economic growth in the European Union.
The pollsters questioned roughly 5,000 people across Ireland immediately after they voted. In the past such polls have been broadly accurate.
Under Ireland’s proportional representation, single transferable vote system, ultimate seats depend on the order of preference voters mark on ballots, so seat numbers will not become clear until ballots are counted.
Vote counting begins on Sunday morning at 9 a.m. local time. Results will begin to roll in throughout Sunday and a picture of the national result should emerge within hours. But counting is done by hand and is a lengthy process so final seat results may not be decided for several days.