DUBLIN Feb 12 Ireland's main opposition party Fine Gael has extended its lead over its nearest rivals, a new opinion poll showed on Saturday, potentially putting the centre-right party within a shot of an outright majority
The Sunday Business Post/Red C poll put the centre-right Fine Gael's support up 3 points to 38 percent and nearing the 40 percent mark that analysts believe it would need to break to secure an overall majority.
The centre-left Labour Party was pegged back two points to 20 percent, while the ruling Fianna Fail party slipped 2 points to 15 percent, as it nears the likely end of its near 14 years in power.
Fine Gael and Labour have been widely expected to form a coalition government after the Feb. 25 election, which has been dominated by the country's financial meltdown and anger over the terms of the 85 billion euro bailout by the EU and IMF.
But the latest poll suggests Fine Gael could form a government without the Labour Party, and perhaps with the support of independents, if it can maintain the momentum.
According to the poll, support for independent candidates was up 3 points to 14 percent, Sinn Fein fell 3 points to 10 percent and the Greens rose 1 point to 3 percent.
"You do need to be breaking 40 percent to be getting an overall majority," politics lecturer Theresa Reidy of University College Cork told Reuters.
Reidy said Labour could be facing challenges, as the "soft-right" vote drifts back to Fine Gael and the "soft-left" moves towards the United Left Alliance and Sinn Fein.
"It's possible that Labour has lost some of its soft support that it picked up earlier in the year when it ran with lots of angry rhetoric," she said. "The problem is now that policies are having to be spelt out in a lot of detail."
Both Fine Gael and Labour have pledged to renegotiate the EU/IMF package as they seek a cut in the cost of the external assistance but they are opposed on many other areas of policy and a coalition of the two would be far from straightforward.
On Saturday they clashed as Fine Gael's finance spokesman Michael Noonan dismissed Labour as a "high tax party" that would hurt growth, while Labour responded that their prospective partners were siding with "the wealthiest bankers" in society.
However Reidy said voters in Ireland were used to coalition government and said parties who neared the 40 percent mark in previous election polls had often then slipped back.
"It hasn't always played very well for parties when it looks like they're going to get an overall majority," she said.
The poll was taken among over 1,000 voters.