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DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland faced political turmoil Sunday as an exit poll from the weekend’s parliamentary election suggested that Sinn Fein, a left-wing party committed to reunification of the island, finished in a virtual dead heat with the two parties that have governed since the country won independence almost a century ago.
While ballot counting remained underway, the poll indicated that Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s centrist Fine Gael party, centrist rival Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein all received about 22% of first preference votes. The survey, conducted by pollster Ipsos MRBI for national broadcaster RTE, the Irish Times, TG4 television and University College Dublin, has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.3 percentage points.
The predicted outcome means some type of coalition government is almost inevitable, with Sinn Fein likely to be a central player in the negotiations to form one.
Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have until now refused to work with Sinn Fein because of its links to the Irish Republican Army. The centrist parties say Sinn Fein failed to repudiate the IRA’s role in the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Jonathan Evershed, a postdoctoral researcher in government and politics at University College Cork, said the centrist parties' resolve may weaken as politicians reckon with the reality of Sinn Fein’s strong showing.
“Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin but will face major pressure now to row back from that,’’ Evershed told The Associated Press. “Based on emerging numbers, there is no route to government that doesn't involve working with Sinn Féin in one way or another.’’
It is still unclear how many seats each party would have in Ireland’s 160-seat parliament, known as the Dail, because the country uses a proportional representation system known as the single transferable vote.
The system requires multiple rounds of counting as votes are redistributed based on voters' second and third-choice preferences once candidates cross the threshold for election or are eliminated from consideration.
Early results reported Sunday evening showed Sinn Fein won 13 of the first 14 seats decided. The Green Party took the other.
Despite the closeness of the result forecast in the exit poll, Sinn Fein is in a weaker position than its two main rivals because it fielded only 42 candidates, limiting the number of seats it can win. That could make it difficult for Sinn Fein to find enough left-leaning allies among smaller parties and independents to form a workable government.
By contrast, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail ran multiple candidates in most constituencies and are likely to pick up more seats in parliament as votes are counted.
Sinn Fein said it was ready to talk - to everyone but the two major parties - about forming a government.
"I want us to have a government for the people,’’ Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said. “I want us to have, ideally, a government with no Fianna Fail or Fine Gael in it. I have started the contact with other parties to explore over the next days whether that is a possibility.’’
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, whose origins lie on opposing sides of Ireland’s 1920s civil war, share a broadly centrist outlook and have alternated holding power to govern Ireland over the decades.
Varadkar, 41, became Taoiseach — prime minister — in 2017 after the resignation of his predecessor. His party has governed Ireland since 2011, first in coalition with the smaller Labour Party and since 2016 as the leader of a minority administration with the tacit support of Fianna Fail.
But support for the two big parties has fallen since the 2008 global financial crisis, which hit the debt-fueled "Celtic Tiger” economy particularly hard. Ireland was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy and forced to seek a humiliating international bailout that was followed by years of austerity.
That provided an opening for Sinn Fein, as frustration over the country’s housing shortage, soaring rents and a health-care system that has failed to keep up with rising demand became the central issues of the campaign.
While Fine Gael and Fianna Fail said they would build more houses, ease hospital overcrowding and cut waiting times for medical treatment, Sinn Fein offered a more radical plan to raise taxes on the wealthy, freeze rents, build tens of thousands of new homes and lower the state pension age.
But Sinn Fein’s historic role as the political wing of the IRA continue to haunt the party. The IRA was responsible for murders, bombings and other violence during the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland, which claimed more than 3,500 lives over decades of conflict between forces that sought reunification with the Republic and those who wanted to remain part of the U.K.
Supporters of Sinn Fein point out that it’s been more than 20 years since the 1998 Good Friday agreement that helped end the bloodshed and 15 years since the IRA announced the end of its violent campaign. Sinn Fein already sits in government in the U.K. region of Northern Ireland as part of a power-sharing arrangement created by the peace process.
Sean Crowe, a Sinn Fein lawmaker from the Dublin Southwest constituency, said the party is willing to work with any party as long as they support a ``Republican program for change.’’
“There’s a huge responsibility on us,’’ he told reporters. ``All those big issues that came up during the election, we said we would have a different approach, and we have a different approach than the main political parties, the establishment parties. It’s up to them now to come and call to us about forming the next government.’’