Ireland's government prepared for a whopping defeat and the country for more uncertainty as angry voters turned out for a historic election triggered by the humiliating collapse of the "Celtic Tiger" economy.
The opposition Fine Gael party has enjoyed a wide lead during a campaign dominated by debate over how to rebuild an economy brought down by a property boom collapse, which in turn led to a bailout of Ireland's failing banks.
The governing Fianna Fail party is bracing for a rout. It led the government through Ireland's boom years in 1994-2007 and into the economic meltdown that end up with a humiliating bailout from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But whoever wins will find their ability to maneuver limited by the IMF and the bankers of Europe. Meanwhile, with unemployment at more than 13%, Ireland's young and jobless are heading for ports and airports, and the nation is reeling from tax increases and public service cuts.
The opposition has used Ireland's dire economic situation as a rallying call for change - Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, 60, campaigned in northwestern Ireland on Thursday urging voters to "turn your anger into action."
Ireland's plight has inspired a lively contest with a record 566 candidates including 179 independents for the 166 seats in Ireland's lower house in parliament, the Dail. Nearly 49,000 people have rushed to register to vote in recent weeks.
Turnout in most of the country was brisk on Friday, running ahead of the 2007 election, national broadcaster RTE reported. Opinion polls suggest that Ireland's 3.1 million voters will usher in a new government led by the Fine Gael party, which until now has been the perennial runner-up to Fianna Fail. The key question was whether Fine Gael could win the 84 seats needed for a majority in the Dail. Labour has bumped along near 20 percent, ahead of Fianna Fail.
Sinn Fein, the Northern Ireland-based party that supported the Irish Republican Army, is expected to gain seats.
The Labour Party hoped to pile up enough votes to deny Fine Gael an outright majority in the Dail and secure Labour a place in a coalition government.
That appealed to Mark Fortune, a civil servant who fear Fine Gael's plans to cut 20,000 public service jobs.
"I think Labour would hold them back a bit," Fortune said. Voters have expressed a yearning for change, but Jack Fitzpatrick, 56, was cautious about getting it. "I would be not too optimistic that there will be too much change," he said after voting in Dublin.
Fine Gael's big advantage may be simply that it isn't Fianna Fail, the party in power when the good times stopped. "I don't think there's a great deal of difference," said Michael Marsh, professor of comparative political behavior at Trinity College Dublin.
The most significant distinction among the three leading parties, Marsh said Friday, is that "Labour is speaking a bit more about pump priming ... and that dreaded word, tax."
John Webb, who said he voted for Fine Gael as "most likely to clean up the mess," feared that old loyalties would reassert themselves and that Fianna Fail would do better than opinion polls indicated.
"It all goes back to the civil war, though none of them fought in it," Webb said.
Fine Gael traces its ancestry to the revolutionaries led by Michael Collins who accepted a treaty with Britain in 1921, then fought a war with Fianna Fail's founders, who rejected the treaty and refused to take seats in the Dail until 1932. Fianna Fail has been in turmoil: Brian Cowen, the prime minister, had fallen to record low popularity and resigned as party leader before the campaign. New leader Micheal Martin appears to have steadied the party without markedly improving its standing. The votes will not be counted until Saturday and RTE will broadcast its exit poll results an hour before the count begins. Final results aren't expected before Sunday.