The Republic of Ireland’s political future has been plunged into deep disarray after voters dealt the traditionally dominant parties an unprecedented hammering.
With the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour partnership staring at a humiliating defeat, the electorate sent a resounding message to the established order and raised the prospect of weeks of protracted negotiations on potential coalitions.
Early indications suggest a widespread disaffection with mainstream parties and austerity mirroring a movement across Europe, including Spain, Portugal and Greece, where parliaments have been crippled by the voter schism.
The predicted outcome would be all the more remarkable as the political powerhouses, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, struggle to secure support of 50% of the electorate for the first time in history.
With more than ten seats out of 158 declared, Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin, the opposition leader in the last Dail parliament, insisted the focus was not entirely on bringing an end to 90-odd years of civil war politics by taking power with Fine Gael.
“We have made it clear we do not want to go into government with Fine Gael or with Sinn Fein,” he said.
“The idea that it is just down to two parties, I think, is ignoring the reality of how people voted.”
Sinn Fein will be the third largest party.
Under Gerry Adams, who topped the poll in Louth, the party looks set to continue its march south of the border with an expected increase in its vote and its presence in the Dail parliament by around 50%.
Three outgoing Labour ministers are at risk of losing their seats in the electoral bloodbath including Tanaiste, or deputy prime minister, and party leader Joan Burton, Alex White and Kathleen Lynch.
Questions will also hang over whether Taoiseach Enda Kenny can remain on as leader of Fine Gael. His party has been shattered after falling from its record election result in 2011.
In a remarkable comeback after its near wipeout at the last election, Fianna Fail could almost double its seats.
But the once-dominant party in Irish politics will remain a long way from its heyday majority, which tumbled with the economic crash it presided over nearly a decade ago.
Mounting disillusionment with mainstream parties has also opened an unprecedented fracture in the Irish electorate, with smaller parties and Independents set to reap the rewards.
Uncertainty looms over whether a government can be formed at all once the two million-odd ballots are counted.
Power could be handed to civil servants for at least weeks as negotiations to form a stable pact are hammered out and a second election remains a possibility.
Mark Mortell, the Taoiseach’s closest adviser, said Ireland would have to review its “political system” once the outcome of its most uncertain election in recent times is decided.
“The only word I can use right now is deep disappointment,” he said.
The top-ranking aide admitted the chance of another general election was “now very, very high”.
The first government TD (MP) to concede his seat, Labour’s Eric Byrne, declared he was relieved.
“It is going to be pure hell to be re-elected into a chaotic parliament,” he added.
One of the few possibilities for stable government, it appears, would be sworn enemies Fine Gael and Fianna Fail setting aside their near 90-year-old feud dating back to Ireland’s civil war.
The pair, both centre-right, have swapped power since the foundation of the state.
Such a “grand coalition” would also break new ground in potentially handing the Dail a definitive left-right split for the first time in history.
Asked about the prospect, Mr Mortell said: “We’re each going to have to consider the situation and we’re going to have to talk to the Labour Party too.”
He added: “What you’ve got here is an extraordinary situation. It is a massive fracturing of the political system.
“It creates immediately a huge amount of volatility and if you look just across into Europe, and what’s happened in Spain and Portugal, this does mean we’re going to have a very, very interesting couple of weeks ahead of us and very, very demanding ones.”
Fianna Fail front bencher Michael McGrath said there is an onus on everyone elected to reflect on their own and their party’s position “to bring about a stable government”.
There is also the prospect of a minority government taking power but seasoned commentators have warned about the instability of such a loose pact.
More than 550 candidates fought in 40 constituencies to become one of just 158 TDs - eight seats fewer than the 2011 election when Fine Gael and Labour took office promising a democratic revolution.
Once a clear picture emerges from the weekend counting of votes, the parties will have until March 10 - when the Dail is scheduled to resume - to forge a power-sharing deal.