Ireland's victorious opposition party Fine Gael set the stage on Sunday for coalition talks with its traditional partner Labour next week after a historic election that crushed its long-time rival Fianna Fail.
The centre-right Fine Gael, swept into power on a wave of voter anger over the country's financial meltdown, is under pressure to form a government quickly as it seeks to persuade Europe to relax the terms of a bailout it fears will bankrupt the former "Celtic Tiger" economy.
On course for a record 75 plus seats, the pro-business, low tax party is however set to fall short of an overall majority in the 166-seat lower chamber.
It will most likely open talks with the centre-left Labour, on course for its own record showing, to form a coalition with a large majority. But publicly, it was keeping its options open.
It says it will wait for the last seats to be filled to give it the dominant hand it would like to take into negotiations.
"The difficulty will be that both will feel they're going in to the talks after their best election ever and will therefore feel that they shouldn't give in on anything," Eoin O'Malley of Dublin City University told Reuters.
"But I think they'll find a way around," he said, adding that any talk of Fine Gael entering a partnership with independent candidates was a tactic to pressurise Labour.
Depending on its final tally, Fine Gael could seek the support of independent lawmakers but senior figures in the party have emphasised the need for stable government signalling an aversion to making deals with a disparate group of individuals.
"We don't have any time to lose," Fine Gael's leader and prime minister in-waiting Enda Kenny said shortly after claiming victory. "The country can't borrow money, the banks can't borrow money, we are up to our necks here."
The former primary school teacher heads to Helsinki on Friday for a summit of EU leaders, and party sources have told Reuters he will want a firm indication of the make-up of the new government before then.
Party sources say a new government will be in place by the time parliament reopens on March 9.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said there had been no contact between the two parties.
"This country has huge problems," he told state broadcaster RTE. "We have a week at most to form a government. The Labour party is willing to form what would in effect be close to a national government."
Despite clashing in the election campaign, Fine Gael and Labour have a history of working well together and a record majority should bring some stability back to Irish politics after the chaos of Fianna Fail's last days in office.
Senior Fine Gael members including Michael Noonan, a possible candidate for the next finance minister, lined up over the weekend to say they could work with Labour.
"I am looking forward to a stable government and that implies that we wouldn't be relying on a handful of high-maintenance independents whom you would have to satisfy every time there was a crucial vote," he said.
The presence of Labour may also harden the government's determination to renegotiate the terms of the European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout and ease some of the burden on a weary electorate struggling to make ends meet.
With over 80 percent of seats counted, Fine Gael held 61, Labour held 33 while Fianna Fail was set for a record rout with just 15 seats.
The Green Party, which governed in coalition with Fianna Fail in the last parliament, lost all its seats.
Sinn Fein, best known as the political wing of the now-dormant Irish Republican Army, was close to trebling its 2007 election result with 13 seats and some 14 seats went to independent candidates and socialists.
But the numbers alone did not tell the full story of the massive political upheaval that swept across the country.
A host of high-profile independents, ranging from a shaggy-haired builder to a tailored former stockbroker and a pro-cannabis campaigner, swept out parties and candidates who had ruled for generations.
For Fianna Fail, it faces the biggest collapse in support for any Irish party since independence from Britain in 1921, and its defeat would mark the first euro zone government to be brought down by the debt crisis.