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Photograph: HINA/ Damir SENČAR /ds

 Ireland's governing coalition led by outgoing Prime Minister Enda Kenny has lost considerable ground in the country's general election, exit polls carried out by national broadcaster RTE said Saturday.

According to the polls, Fine Gael and Labour won 24.8 per cent and 7.1 per cent of first-reference votes respectively. The 32-per-cent share would put them well short of the 41-42-per-cent majority that Finance Minister Michael Noonan said they need to form a new government.

Support for opposition Fianna Fail is at 21.1 per cent and Sinn Fein at 16 per cent, according to the RTE poll. Independents and other small parties are on 31 per cent.

The exit poll surveyed over 4,000 voters and has a margin of error of 1.5 per cent.

The outgoing government fared slightly better in an exit poll carried out for The Irish Times daily newspaper released late Friday. It gave Kenny's Fine Gael 26.1 per cent and its coalition partner Labour 7.8 per cent - still well short of a majority.

The results of both polls indicate a sharp drop from the 2011 elections, when Fine Gael won 36.1 per cent and Labour 19.5 per cent.

The count was set to begin at 9 am throughout the country.

Some 3.1 million people were eligible to elect 157 members to the 32nd Dail, or lower house of parliament.

Under Ireland's electoral system of proportional representation with a single transferable vote, counts can take a long time, and final official results may not be available until late Saturday.

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