Ireland's second indecisive national election in eight months again has left the country uncertain about who will form its next government or how long it will last, making more difficult any decisive action to deal with a worsening economic crisis.
Opposition leader Charles Haughey, whose Fianna Fail party won 81 of the 166 seats, still appeared most likely today to form a government with the support of some minor party and independents when the new parliament meets March 9 to choose a prime minister.
But Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald, whose coalition of the Fine Gael and Labor parties received 78 seats, said he still hoped to win support from enough parliamentary independents to stay in power. He also would have to overcome the resistance of some Labor leaders to remaining in the ruling coalition because of disagreements about economic policy.
With Thursday's vote finally tabulated tonight under Ireland's complicated system of proportional representation, Fine Gael won 63 seats and Labor 15. Seven seats were won by minor party candidates and independents, most of them socialists to the left of Labor.
Countering a confident declaration by Haughey, who was prime minister from 1979 until June, that "I will form the next government," FitzGerald told reporters, "I consider I have an even chance of being prime minister."
Their positions were reversed from June's national election, in which FitzGerald's coalition won 80 seats to Fianna Fail's 78 and succeeded in forming a shaky government with the support of parliamentary independents. The government was brought down last month when the independents deserted FitzGerald over his tax-raising proposals to reduce budget deficits and foreign debts.
Haughey offered voters an alternative budget that would be less painful for most Irish families, eliminating unpopular taxes on clothing and milk price increases that FitzGerald had proposed. But many economists and politicians, including some in Haughey's own party, argued that his budget would do too little to reduce budget deficits--which could force the Irish government this year to borrow the equivalent of 17 percent of Ireland's national income.
A number of Irish politicians also warned today that the election outcome could prolong "political instability" that began with June's election. Disagreeing with Haughey's contention that the election result "was not a stalemate" and that he would be able to govern for the next four or five years, they questioned whether the next government will be able to stay in power very long or push unpopular economic measures through parliament.
"What's really needed is a government that's not going to be worried about its situation" in parliament, said Fine Gael member of parliament John Kelly, trade minister in FitzGerald's coalition. In an Irish radio panel discussion of the political crisis, he said that Haughey, like FitzGerald during the past seven months, "will need votes from independents for everything from procedural votes to major policy decisions."
Irish politicians and economists have warned that Ireland's economic leap forward during the 1960s and 1970s, developing high-technology industries and raising living standards, could be threatened by the budget deficits, a burgeoning foreign debt, an inflation rate of more than 20 percent and unemployment near 13 percent.
Irish policy toward British-ruled Northern Ireland also has been clouded by the election outcome. Both Haughey and FitzGerald have worked closely with the British government to improve Irish-Ulster border security and relations in ways that might eventually help solve the Northern Ireland problem.
But FitzGerald has been much more conciliatory than Haughey toward the Protestant British-loyalist majority in Northern Ireland, while maintaining close contact with moderate leaders of the Catholic Irish nationalist minority. He began a campaign to remove from the Irish constitution such vestiges of Catholic Church doctrine as its ban on divorce as well as the constitution's blanket claims to sovereignty over Ulster.
Haughey has criticized this campaign as damaging to Ireland's national interests. Calling Northern Ireland a "failed" political entity as a British province, he has said Britain and Ireland must ultimately negotiate a new relationship for it.
Among the parliamentary independents from whom Haughey and FitzGerald will be seeking support to form a government are two who in the past have urged immediate British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. One of them, Neil Baleny, said today that Northern Ireland policy would be a factor in his decision.
But Irish voters showed in Thursday's election that they are more concerned about the economy than Northern Ireland. Militant Irish nationalist candidates did poorly.