DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern is on course to win a third successive term but may well have to woo a new coalition partner to be sure of a parliamentary majority, an exit poll showed on Friday.
"It's going to definitely be an extremely close, long process," said Roger Jupp, managing director of pollster Lansdowne Market Research, as officials began counting votes cast in Thursday's election.
Jupp's poll for broadcaster RTE showed backing for the Fianna Fail party at 41.6 percent.
This was little changed from the 2002 election and compared with 38 percent in the last opinion poll of a campaign in which Ahern had to fend off questions over his personal finances and a coordinated bid to oust him by the two main opposition parties.
Support for Ahern's junior coalition partner, the pro-business Progressive Democrats, appears to have fallen and the exit poll gave the two governing parties a combined 44 percent of the vote versus about 46 percent five years ago.
In the 2002 election Fianna Fail and the PDs won 89 seats in the 166-seat Dail (lower house of parliament).
The most likely opposition government, known as the "rainbow coalition" and made up of Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party, had a 41 percent share.
Ahern would probably have to lure a rival to his side, most likely Labour or the Greens, to ensure a majority if the official result mirrored the poll. The backing of a handful of independent lawmakers might also be enough.
LONG NIGHT AHEAD
Labour, which fought the election on a joint platform with Fine Gael, said during the campaign it would not enter government with Fianna Fail.
But speaking to Reuters on Thursday, Labour leader Pat Rabbitte left the door ajar to a deal with Ahern's party.
Ahern helped bring peace to Northern Ireland during a decade in power when his country became one of Europe's richest. Opponents have promised to improve a "shambolic" health service and overloaded transport network.
Sinn Fein which entered a ground-breaking power-sharing government in Northern Ireland this month, does not look to have made the breakthrough in the south it had hoped for.
The exit poll showed backing for the party at 7.3 percent which was up slightly but short of the 9-10 percent expected.
Exit and opinion polls in Ireland can be deceptive, however.
The country has a complex electoral system of proportional representation that allows people to vote for local representatives rather than national parties and to rank candidates in their area in order of preference.
That means that while the final number of seats won by parties broadly reflects their overall shares of the national vote, it is not an exact science.
Ireland's electorate is relatively small at about 3 million. Counting in some areas may continue late into the night and in some cases will have to resume on Saturday. Parties expect turnout to have been above the 63 percent level in 2002.