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Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
Governing party set for Irish victory
Counting got underway across the country on Saturday morning
Complex rules means counting takes time
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his Fianna Fail party appear set to return to power, as votes are counted in the country's general election.

Three constituencies where, for the first time, voters had cast their ballots electronically, declared their results in the early hours of Saturday morning, showing gains for Fianna Fail.

Woman with umbrella passes polling station
Heavy rain did not deter voters
This confirms exit polls which gave the party 43% of the vote.

The polls also suggest the conservative opposition grouping Fine Gael has fared badly with around 22%.

There was also a marked increase of support for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

The party won its first seat of this election, with Sean Crowe's victory in Dublin south west.

Sinn Fein's Caoimghin O Caolain retained his seat in Cavan-Monaghan and colleague Martin Ferris took a seat in Kerry North.

Overall, Sinn Fein's score rose from 2.5% to 7%, according to exit polls.

The Irish Labour Party and the Greens also appear to have done relatively well.

Speculation is growing that Fianna Fail, which has led a minority coalition government since the last legislative elections in 1997, may fall just short of an overall majority.

The BBC's Kevin Connelly in Dublin says the final result could be a new government similar to the old one but with a more radical opposition.

Turnout - on a day of torrential rain - was reported above 50% in many areas, rising to 70% in some rural districts.

Electronic votes

Results from the three constituencies - Dublin West, Dublin North and Meath - which used electronic voting left Fianna Fail with six out of a possible 12 seats - one up from the last election.

Dublin West was the first constituency to declare its results - just two-and-a-half hours after the polls closed on Friday.

The electronic voting system could be used nationwide at the next elections if it proves to be a success.

But, given Ireland's complex system of proportional representation, calculating results can be time-consuming.

Sinn Fein hopes

Attention is also focused on the performance of Sinn Fein, which had just one seat in the last Irish parliament, but is expecting to do much better this time.

Irish PM Bertie Ahern
PM Ahern hopes to win an absolute majority
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said his party offered voters a real chance.

"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 up for grabs in the Irish Dail - the lower house of parliament - and Sinn Fein is optimistic that it will win between three and seven seats.

However, Mr Ahern has ruled out any involvement with Sinn Fein in a coalition until the paramilitary group is disbanded.

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.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Denis Murray
"Sinn Fein's result has not transformed the political landscape"
The BBC's James Helm
"It has been a good day for the smaller parties"
See also:

18 May 02 | Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein claims election success
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