Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny .jpg
Photograph: EPA/ANDY RAIN

Ireland will vote in a much-anticipated general election on February 26, the government said on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Enda Kenny seeks to win another term for his centre-right Fine Gael party.

In the months leading up to the announcement, the date of the election has been the subject of more intense speculation than its outcome.

Forced by his coalition partner Labour to postpone from an expected date in November until after Labour's party conference on January 30, Kenny came under fire for the delay as all parties started campaigning in early January.

With a date finally set, the question is not who will lead the next government, but how large a majority Kenny's centre-right Fine Gael party will gain and - if, as expected, it fails to win an outright majority - with whom it will form a government.

With 31-per-cent support, according to the most recent polls published by national broadcaster RTE at the end of January, Fine Gael is hoping to gain a few more points in the last few weeks of its campaign by focussing on its role in the economic recovery.

Labour, which is expected to win around 8 per cent of the vote, has taken much of the flak for cutbacks and tax hikes introduced in successive budgets since 2011.

Ireland's economic collapse, brought on by a banking crisis and a property market crash, forced it into a bailout funded by the International Monetary Fund and European Union in November 2010.

Fine Gael launched its manifesto on January 11 with the claim that since entering government in April 2011 it has delivered almost all of its election promises.

"We have delivered or made significant progress on 93 per cent of the 714 individual commitments made by Fine Gael and Labour in the programme for government," it said.

While this figure was met with a large dose of scepticism, some statistics are working in Fine Gael's favour.

In 2011, unemployment was 14.4 per cent compared with the current rate of 8.8 per cent.

Economic growth was just 1.7 per cent but had risen to 7 per cent in the third quarter of 2015.

The problems that could have scuppered Fine Gael's chances of re-election –  a crisis in the health service, an acute housing shortage – are being drowned out by news of the burgeoning economy.

Even the inadequate official response to recent flooding is unlikely to anger the electorate enough to make them vote against the party of government.

With austerity finally deemed to be over, the electorate is grateful for the tax relief and welfare increases announced in the last budget.

The feel-good factor appears to be back, with 2016 expected to be a bumper year for car sales, always an indicator of economic optimism.

One of the government's pre-election moves has been to cut the universal social charge, an unpopular tax associated with the austerity measures imposed on the country as a result of the bailout.

The European Commission has called this move "political" in a "post-programme surveillance report" due for release over the next few weeks, the Irish Examiner newspaper reported on January 14.

Calls for a 25-per-cent universal tax rate by Renua, a new party formed by Lucinda Creighton, a former Fine Gael junior minister, are unlikely to entice an electorate away from voting for fiscal policies that promise more of the same.

Whether Labour is likely to benefit from the resurgence in Fine Gael's fortunes could be determined by how it runs its campaign.

Its biggest challenge will be to reverse the belief that it is to blame for cutbacks in services while Fine Gael is responsible for the economic recovery.

The two biggest opposition parties, Fianna Fail and Republican party Sinn Fein, are both polling around 18-19 per cent.

The centre-right Fianna Fail, historically a leading force in Irish politics, has failed to shake off its image as the party whose recklessness led to Ireland's economic collapse.

Sinn Fein's efforts to seize some of the centre ground previously held by Fianna Fail are unlikely to succeed as many voters still associate the party with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the violence of the Northern Irish conflict.

The recent controversy over Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams' public support for convicted tax evader and former IRA man Thomas "Slab" Murphy has not done him any favours with the electorate.

Independent candidates, who gained 12.7 per cent of the vote in the last election as voters looked for an alternative to the mainstream parties, plus smaller parties, including the Socialists and the Greens, are expected to attract a total of about 24 per cent of the vote in the election.

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