Irish coalition's junior partner faces election wipeout

The outgoing Fine Gael/Labour partnership suffered huge losses, exit polls showed.

Labour leader Joan Burton's seat is among those at risk as the party is deserted by voters angry at the coalition's tough austerity measures, which were imposed by global creditors to rescue Ireland's collapsing economy in 2011.

Support for Fianna Fail, the party most associated with Ireland's economic crash, has recovered slightly since it was punished at the last poll in 2011, though Mr Kenny has rejected the idea of doing a deal with its leader, Micheal Martin.

But seasoned commentators warn about the instability of such a scenario, not to mention it was adamantly ruled out by all of the senior figures in both parties during the lacklustre campaign.

The spectre of a second election will loom over any uncertainty.

Power could be handed to civil servants for at least weeks as negotiations to form a stable pact are hammered out and a second election remains a possibility.

The outcome will hinge on the extent to which Prime Minister Enda Kenny's pledge to "keep the recovery going" - which opinion polls suggest has failed to inspire the electorate - manages to sway undecided voters.

The first government TD (MP) to concede his seat, Labour's Eric Byrne, declared he was relieved.

While Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have few policy differences, they showed no appetite to team up during the campaign with one minister describing the prospect as a "nightmare".

Such a groundbreaking shift could also open the first definitive right/left divide in the Dail.

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Fine Gael went into the election with 36 percent of the seats in the Dail, and it looks like they will drop to 26 percent after the count is finished.

He added: "What you've got here is an extraordinary situation".

"We're looking at major transformation of our party system".

"The only word I can use right now is deep disappointment", Mark Mortell, Kenny's advisor told Irish radio station Newstalk this morning, according to the Irish Independent.

That compares with 41 per cent days before Kenny called the election on Feb 3, and with the near 45 per cent analysts say the two parties would need to secure a majority.

There is also the prospect of a minority government taking power but seasoned commentators have warned about the instability of such a loose pact.

Voters were greeted with the list of candidates standing in their constituency, which they were to rank in preference under Ireland's proportional representation system, before slipping their papers into locked ballot boxes.

Framed by a debate over how to distribute the profits of an economic growth surge since the country took a sovereign bailout in 2010, the election is unlikely to produce a clear victor, polls suggest.

All parties will be mindful of a deadline of March 10, when the new parliament is due to meet and nominate a new Taoiseach, or prime minister.