DUBLIN Irish voters headed for the polls on Thursday in an election so close that Prime Minister Bertie Ahern may have to lure a major left-leaning opponent onto his side if he is to stay in power.
Having repeatedly ruled out entering a coalition with Ahern, Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte left the door open to a deal, telling Reuters he did not look forward to the prospect but that he was keen to keep IRA political ally Sinn Fein out of power.
"I don't want to see Sinn Fein driving economic policies or other policies," Rabbitte said in an interview after casting his vote in his Dublin constituency.
Sinn Fein, which entered a ground-breaking power-sharing government in partitioned Northern Ireland this month, is set to make gains in Thursday's election in the south after Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerrillas vowed to down arms in 2005.
Ahern has ruled out governing with Sinn Fein, saying the party's left-wing economics are incompatible with his own policies, but opinion polls show voters believe he would do a deal if it was the only way to extend his 10 years in power.
Labour, Sinn Fein and the Green Party are all potential kingmakers in an election where the governing coalition of the centrist Fianna Fail and the pro-business Progressive Democrats will fall short of a majority.
Fine Gael, the main opposition party, is fighting to unseat Ahern on a joint platform with Labour but they too could fail to win enough seats even if they do get the backing of the so-far unaligned Green Party in a 'rainbow coalition'.
That scenario means those betting on the election now see a Fianna Fail/Labour government as the most likely option.
"ARROGANCE AND COMPLACENCY"
A poll on Thursday reinforced uncertainty over who will take charge after a vote The Irish Times said was "one of the most hotly-contested and unpredictable elections of recent times".
A survey by pollster Red C showed the governing parties on a combined 41 percent while the three parties in a possible 'rainbow' alternative had 43 percent between them.
Fianna Fail and the PDs won their slim parliamentary majority in 2002 with 46 percent of the vote.
Ahern might have expected an easy win after a decade in which he helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and saw his country become one of Europe's wealthiest nations.
But his campaign for a third successive term got off to a wobbly start after fresh allegations over payments from friends and businessmen in the 1990s when he was finance minister.
"Voting Labour would normally be the last thing I would do," said Ruth Jenkinson, 31, a self-employed businesswoman, as she cast her vote in leafy south Dublin.
"But arrogance and complacency have been creeping in to ministerial posts and power does breed corruption, especially if a party has been in power for too long."
The opposition has also tapped into a sense that the wealth generated by Ireland's 'Celtic Tiger' boom is being squandered.
Fine Gael and Labour say they will do better at running a "shambolic" health service and have promised to bring Ireland's creaking transport network up to speed.
Ahern has clawed back some lost ground in recent polls, however, after publishing receipts to try to dispel doubts over his finances and following an assured television performance.
"There's no doubt Bertie will win," said retired plasterer Alex McQuillan after voting in Ahern's Dublin constituency. "There's no-one else there, no alternative leader."
Polls close at 10.30 p.m. (2130 GMT) with counting due to begin on Friday morning. A close result may lead to days of horse-trading as parties try to cobble together a majority.