Prime Minister John Bruton, who led Ireland through a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, conceded narrow defeat Sunday in national elections.
His loss means that opposition leader Bertie Ahern, a 45-year-old populist Dubliner who has vowed to bring peace to Northern Ireland, will probably be tapped to head a new coalition government.
Though they have different styles, Bruton and Ahern concur /n the big issues of the day--cutting crime, taxes and unemployment--and the country’s overall course is not expected to change markedly under the new leadership.
With all but one seat decided from Friday’s election, Ahern’s Fianna Fail, traditionally the largest party, won at least 77 seats in the 166-seat Dail, the lawmaking lower chamber of Parliament.
That gave him four seats more than Bruton’s three-party coalition, which has governed since December 1994. The reversal fit a trend dating to 1969 in Ireland: No administration, regardless of record, has been reelected.
Fianna Fail, however, will not on its own be able to reach the 84-seat plateau needed to govern. It will require support from its campaign partners, the small Progressive Democrats, who fared badly with just four seats, and a few loose-cannon independents with Fianna Fail sympathies.
Bruton’s conservative Fine Gael party won more than 50 seats, but support for his principal ally, the Labor Party, collapsed. He wished Ahern “the best of luck.”
The election is a bittersweet end for Bruton, whose term coincided with the strongest economic growth in the 75-year history of independent Ireland. Ahern, minister of finance in previous Fianna Fail-led administrations, claimed credit for the boom.
Ahern will spend the next two weeks building support behind the scenes to ensure that he wins the Dail’s June 26 vote for taoiseach--the formal Gaelic title for prime minister, which translates as “chief.”