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Friday, 17 May, 2002, 21:44 GMT 22:44 UK
Irish brace bad weather to vote
Voters in Dublin
Voting was extended to encourage a high turnout
Irish voters have braced miserable weather to cast their ballots in a general election which looks set to return Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to power.

We are a party that offers a real alternative to the stale and corrupt politics that have marked life here for so long

Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader
Mr Ahern's Fianna Fail party has led a minority coalition government since the last legislative elections in 1997, and it is hoping this time to secure an overall majority.

If the party succeeds, it would be the first to do so in 25 years.

Polling was extended to 2230 local time (2130 GMT) in the hope of securing a high turnout.

Although official figures of how many people have voted are not expected until Saturday, state broadcaster RTE spoke of "steady to brisk" voting.

Long day

"It's a fairly miserable day but it's a historic day," declared the taoiseach as he cast his vote. "It's the longest polling day in the history of this country."

Irish PM Bertie Ahern
PM Ahern hopes to win an absolute majority
Less than two-thirds of the population voted in 1997, but indications this time suggested a good early turnout.

A small number of constituencies experimenting with electronic voting will declare results shortly after the polls close, but most will be counted over the weekend.

Ireland uses a complex proportional representation system.

Eye on Sinn Fein

Attention will be focused on any progress made by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, which had just one seat in the last Irish parliament but is expecting to do much better this time.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said his party offered voters a real chance.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams (right) with candidate Nicky Kehoe
Sinn Fein believes it could win up to seven seats
"We are a party that offers a real alternative to the stale and corrupt politics that have marked life here for so long," Mr Adams said.

"We are asking people to join with us in building an Ireland of equals."

There are 165 seats in the Irish Dail up for grabs, with Sinn Fein optimistic that it could achieve between three and seven seats.

However, the prime minister has ruled out any involvement of Sinn Fein in a ruling coalition until the paramilitary group is disbanded.

Possible link-ups

Mr Ahern's minority coalition - in tandem with Mary Harney's Progressive Democrats - has presided over an economic boom, which has made both tax cuts and generous public spending possible.

However, correspondents say the boom years may now be coming to an end.

Bookmakers have offered odds of 35-to-one against the leader of the country's second-largest party - Fine Gael's Michael Noonan - becoming prime minister.

If neither of the two largest parties wins a majority, they may have to rely on Ruairi Quinn's Labour, Trevor Sargent's Greens or the Progressive Democrats to form the next government.

The BBC's Kevin Connolly says there is some evidence that Irish voters prefer coalition governments to single party rule.

The BBC's James Helm
"Bertie Ahern's popularity ratings are high"
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