Ireland's Ruling Party Expected To Lose Election

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The voting in Ireland is being seen as the first election in Europe to be dominated by the international debt crisis. Voters are expected to throw out the present government — blaming it for failing to control the country's property boom, and for bailing out the banking system at a massive cost to Irish taxpayer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Ireland, the debt crisis that swept Europe will almost surely claim its first political victims today. The Irish are holding a general election, their first since receiving a massive financial bail-out. Voters are expected to exact revenge on the politicians who were at the helm when their once-booming economy hit the rocks.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the capital, Dublin.

PHILIP REEVES: This is Ireland's day of reckoning. People can vent their frustration on the leaders who oversaw the nation's gravest economic crisis since independence. Ireland's banks have crumbled, brought down by reckless lending during a property bubble. Jobs are so scarce that an estimated 1,000 people emigrate every week. Those who remain face years of austerity, as the government tries to pay back more than $90 billion to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

Margaret Ward, a financial journalist based in Dublin, says things have changed since the last election.

Ms. MARGARET WARD (Financial Journalist): Since 2007, the mad bets that were made on the property market here have gone wrong, gone horribly wrong, and people are now going to be paying off these debts and the debts of the banks for the next 10 to 20 years.

REEVES: Politicians here have never been more despised. They're spoken of with contempt, even by the very young.

Unidentified Man #1: Gangsters, eh.

Unidentified Woman: They're the real gangsters, those men in suits.

REEVES: These teenagers are drinking beer on a headland, overlooking the grey waters of the Irish Sea and the harbor of their hometown, Wicklow. Dylan Higgins is 18 and already losing hope.

Mr. DYLAN HIGGINS: There's no room. There's no jobs or nothing.

REEVES: Do you have a job?

Mr. HIGGINS: No. But I want to get a job, yeah.

REEVES: You do want to get a job?

Mr. HIGGINS: Yeah, I do. Yeah.

REEVES: Are you trying hard?

Mr. HIGGINS: Yeah, I am trying very hard. There's no work out there, though.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

REEVES: At a pub down in the town, politics dominate the conversation.

Mr. ANDREW LAWLESS (Civil Servant): It feels as if we have had the legs taken from under us.

REEVES: That's Andrew Lawless, a civil servant.

Mr. LAWLESS: We were told that everything was right. This was the new Ireland. We were at the top of the ladder. Things were only going to get better. And then it feels is if someone just amputated both legs and took it from under us. We feel very let down.

REEVES: Lawless is with a friend, Jim O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan is 57. He lost his job with the municipal authority more than a year ago and still hasn't found another one.

Mr. JIM O'SULLIVAN: You know, I have another seven or eight years until I am pension age, but, I mean, I don't expect to work anymore, at my age. That's reality. There are no jobs out there.

REEVES: O'Sullivan and his family have first-hand experience of the emigration that's blighted Ireland history, and has begun again.

Mr. O'SULLIVAN: I have two daughters who have emigrated to London. Both of them are working and doing well. And I say to them, whatever you do, hang in there for the next couple of years, because there's no point in coming back to this country.

REEVES: A lot of people here will tell you they're far too disillusioned with politics to vote today. O'Sullivan thinks it's important to do so.

Mr. O'SULLIVAN: If the election doesn't make a difference, we - our game is shot. The last thing we have left is a new government. There's nothing else for us.

REEVES: Every opinion poll points to a new government led by the Fine Gael party. That'll mean its leader Enda Kenny becomes the next prime minister. The big question is whether he'll need a coalition partner, most likely the Labour Party. The ruling Fianna Fail party's expected to take a huge beating. Andrew Lawless says there'll need to be more than an election to mollify the public.

Mr. LAWLESS: No one has yet been held to account for what happened. In America, you know, Madoff was jailed. No one has been jailed here for what went wrong. And I think until someone is found accountable for what happened, I think the people won't be happy.

REEVES: Many of those people also seem unhappy with the tough terms of the bail-out Ireland recently received from the IMF and EU. Fine Gael leaders say if they win, they'll renegotiate those terms. Margaret Ward thinks they'll succeed.

Ms. WARD: Anybody who loans you money wants to be paid back. That's the big thing. So, if you want to be paid back, you have to make it affordable. So I do think that a renegotiation is inevitable, not just possible.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) (unintelligible)

REEVES: Politicians competing for power in Ireland today say this election's all about change. On the streets of Dublin, it's about earning enough change to survive.

Yet the pubs are still busy. Jessie Lavelle is standing outside one of them. She's 33 and unemployed and says she's now being advised to go into one of Ireland's few growth industries: security.

Ms. JESSIE LAVELLE: To be honest with you, security is probably going to be the booming career, because people are going to have no money to spend, so they're going to start robbing things. So I'm being pushed into a career that I don't really want to go into, because I don't want to be arresting people who are going to be just robbing just solely to feed their families, like.

REEVES: Lavelle thinks in this era of uprisings, an election's not enough.

Ms. LAVELLE: I would actually call for a revolution if I could.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Dublin.

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