Ireland faced the prospect of political deadlock on Saturday following a knife-edge election, as an exit poll indicated a slump in support for the government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Support for Kenny's centre-right Fine Gael party slumped to 26. 1 per cent compared to 36. 1 in the previous election in 2011, according to the exit poll conducted by Ipsos, MRBI for the Irish Times.
Junior coalition partner Labour meanwhile saw its support shrink to 7. 8 per cent from 19. 5 per cent, as its centre-left base was alienated by an austerity programme of budget cuts and tax hikes.
The Times calculated that Fine Gael and Labour may get between 58 and 68 seats between them - far short of the 80 needed for a majority.
Kenny had asked voters to return the coalition government to "keep the recovery going" in the first election held since Ireland exited a bailout imposed following a deep financial crisis.
While Fine Gael looks set to be the largest party, according to the exit poll, Kenny will likely be forced to look for additional partners for support in government.
Possibilities include cobbling together extra support from independent politicians and small parties, a re-run of the election, a minority government, or a historic "grand coalition" between Fine Gael and old rivals Fianna Fail.
Fianna Fail are the runners-up in the exit poll, which showed the party set to almost double its seats since 2011, when voters punished the party for an economic crisis and housing crash under its governance.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are neighbours on the political spectrum but have deep divisions dating back to Ireland's 1920s civil war, and both Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin previously dismissed the idea of governing together.
"Some of the old guard in both parties because of historical patterns would find it very hard to swallow," said Gail McElroy, professor in political science at Trinity College Dublin.
"In policy it would actually be the easiest coalition to run, it would be very stable. But for the old guard it's admitting defeat." Either way, parties will be mindful of a deadline of March 10, when the new parliament is set to meet and nominate a new prime minister or Taoiseach.
The exit poll showed the third-biggest party to be left-wing Sinn Fein, which has rebranded as an anti-austerity force south of its Northern Ireland power base, and was shown in the exit poll to have 14. 9 per cent support, an increase from 10 per cent in 2011.
Counting is due to get under way from 0900 GMT on Saturday with results expected by the early hours of Sunday. Turnout was reported to be slightly under the 70 per cent of the previous election in 2011.
Ireland has become the European single currency's champion of economic growth in recent years.
But there is anger over increased homelessness and poverty, and many voters complain they have not felt the "recovery" that Kenny made the centrepiece of his campaign.
The impact of the election may be felt far beyond Ireland's borders, according to the Economist, which commented that a Fine Gael defeat with the economy doing well may ramp up pressure on Brussels to reconsider its policy on austerity.
"Ireland's election may well turn out to be a historic event, not simply for Fine Gael or the other parties contesting it, but also for the future of the eurozone," it said.
Anger at the outgoing government was apparent on the streets of Dublin, where thousands marched against austerity on the weekend before the vote calling for an end to a controversial water tax.
"They have broken every single promise, every single promise," said Jim, a middle-aged Dubliner who said he had voted for the government five years ago but was "totally against" them this time round.
"I'm self-employed. I have to deliver. If you break promises, I don't want to know you," he said.