February 17, 2016 / 5:03 PM / 2 years ago

Post-election stalemate beckons as main Irish parties rule out coalition

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland is facing the prospect of a post-election stalemate after the country’s two dominant parties on Wednesday ruled out going into an unprecedented coalition that polls suggest would offer the only hope of a stable government.

With nine days to go before voters cast their ballots, the political landscape is looking increasingly fragmented.

A steady but unexpected dip in support for Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s center-right Fine Gael party accelerated in a poll published on Tuesday, dropping to 26 percent.

That was down from 31 percent in just 10 days as his message to “keep the recovery going” falls flat among many voters yet to feel the benefits of Europe’s best performing economy.

Rival Fianna Fail, also from the center right, is hovering just below 20 percent, putting the two parties together on course for a parliamentary majority.

They have led Ireland’s 31 governments since a bitter split over the 1922-23 Irish Civil War but never governed together, and they have so far given no signals that they would consider ending their rivalry to team up this time.

“For the fifth time now, my proposition is for Fine Gael and (current coalition partner) Labour,” Kenny said in an interview with national broadcaster RTE on Tuesday, when repeatedly asked about the prospect. “I’ve already ruled out Fianna Fail.”

Fianna Fail’s spokesman for enterprise, Dara Calleary, told a news conference on Wednesday: ”We have made it very clear and our leader has made it very clear, going into government with Fine Gael is not an option.

STALEMATE, BUT NO DISASTER

A period of political stalemate would echo events in Spain, which is still without a government following inconclusive national elections in December but where a strong economic recovery remains on track.

While investors are wary of increased political instability in Europe, a second election would, similarly, be unlikely to do much damage to Ireland’s economy, which grew around 7 percent last year.

However, it could impede Ireland’s response to any “no” vote in an EU membership referendum in neighbor and major trade partner Britain expected to happen by June.

With few policy differences, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail could yet join forces.

But that would also be a major gamble for whichever party, most likely Fianna Fail, ended up being the minority partner, according to Theresa Reidy, a politics lecturer at University College Cork (UCC).

“The way it looks right now, the only two parties that could form a government together are Fine Gael and Fianna Fail but there are reasons why that might not happen,” she said.

“The lessons of history in Ireland are that smaller parties tend to suffer very severely in coalition government. You might get a government but there wouldn’t be much incentive for Fianna Fail to stay the course.”

Such a coalition would also push Irish politics toward a left/right split for the first time and open up the opposition to left-wing protest party Sinn Fein - vying with Fianna Fail for second place and whose leader told Reuters on Tuesday it would “inevitably” enter government in coming years.

editing by John Stonestreet

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