Top 3 parties in dead heat after Irish parliament elections

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Election posters are displayed on lampposts outside the Irish Prime Minister offices in Dublin, Ireland, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. Irish voters will choose a new parliament on Saturday, and may have bad news for the two parties that have dominated the countrys politics for a century, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Polls show a surprise surge for Sinn Fein, the party historically linked to the Irish Republican Army and its violent struggle for a united Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

DUBLIN – Ireland’s three biggest political parties are likely to face a difficult process of forming a new government, with an exit poll suggesting they finished in a virtual dead heat in parliamentary elections Saturday.

The survey conducted for national broadcaster RTE, the Irish Times, TG4 television and University College Dublin by pollster Ipsos MRBI said the Fine Gael party of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein all got about 22% of first preference votes.

The exit poll was based on 5,376 interviews conducted immediately after people voted at 250 polling stations. It has a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage point.

Vote counting starts Sunday, and it could be Monday before the election's results are determined.

With none of the three main parties likely to gain enough seats to govern alone, a coalition of some kind was almost inevitable.

But Sinn Fein was in a slightly weaker position than its two main rivals, because it fielded only 42 candidates for the 159 seats available and might be unable to find enough like-minded left-leaning allies to form a workable government.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail — the two parties that have dominated Irish politics since independence — have shunned Sinn Fein because of its links to the IRA.

While Sinn Fein is a major force in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom region where it is part of the power-sharing government that helped end decades of sectarian violence, it has long been a minor player south of the border in the Irish Republic. But the party has attracted voters with left-wing proposals for tackling Ireland's housing crisis and bolstering the nation's creaking health-care system.