UPDATE: Irish Government Takes Battering In Local, By-Elections

UPDATE: Irish Government Takes Battering In Local, By-Elections

(Adds details beginning in the third paragraph.)

DUBLIN (Dow Jones)--Ireland's ruling Fianna Fail party Saturday faced a battering in local elections across the country and two by-elections in Dublin for seats in the Irish parliament as voters effectively withdrew their support for the embattled government.

Local elections are regarded as a good sign of how voters will vote in 2012, when the current five-year government term runs out. Prime Minister Brian Cowen has been widely criticized by opposition leaders and economists for his handling of the economic crisis.

Cowen said his government will continue to navigate the country out of its deepening recession. "Sometimes in politics when you take necessary decisions you have to put the country first even if it means the short-term political popularity of a party is affected," he said.

The right-of-center Fianna Fail party lost a parliamentary vote in Dublin South as former economic correspondent with state broadcaster RTE George Lee won a landslide victory; the seat became open after the death of Fianna Fail TD Seamus Brennan.

The other by-election seat in Dublin Central looks set to be taken by Independent candidate Maureen O'Sullivan, according to the latest count; that seat became available after the death of Independent TD Tony Gregory; analysts hadn't expected Fianna Fail to be a contender for that seat.

Fianna Fail now has 76 seats in the 166-member Irish parliament; it formed a government with the help of six Green Party TDs and three Independent TDs, meaning it now has a majority of just three seats. Any withdrawal by the Green Party would trigger a general election.

Green Party TD Ciaran Cuffe told state broadcaster RTE News that his party's performance in the local elections raised the question of whether it should be in government. "That will open up the question of should we be in government or should we not be in government," he said.

But Fianna Fail Justice Minister Dermot Ahern vowed that the government would see out its term until 2012 and said it's governing in difficult economic circumstances. "We're in this for the five years and we will continue," he said Saturday.

Fianna Fail is also losing seats in the local elections, according to a Lansdowne Market Research exit poll. Fianna Fail's share of the vote fell 8 points from the last local elections in 2004 to 24%, putting it behind Fine Gael with 30%, but just ahead of Labour with 17%.

The exit poll, conducted on Friday by Lansdowne Market Research, was carried out on behalf of RTE and the Sunday Independent. More than 3,300 people were interviewed and the margin of error was 1.7%. Observers say voters are angry over the government's management of the economy.

Unemployment hit 11.8% in May, according to the latest data from the Live Register on jobless, while the independent Economic & Social Research Institute see unemployment reaching 17% by the end of 2010 as the country's recession worsens.

Meanwhile, tallies from RTE report that Declan Ganley, leader of the anti-Lisbon Treaty campaign turned political party Libertas, is doing better than expected in the North-West European constituency with between 15% and 30% of the vote in some areas.

Ireland was the only member of the 27-nation bloc to put the Lisbon Treaty before voters. The treaty was rejected last year by 53.4% to 46.6%, which threw the future of the European project into crisis, but a second vote is expected in October with certain amendments.

Those amendments include allowing Ireland to retain an E.U. commissioner, preserving Ireland's neutrality and political independence on corporate taxation. But more Irish voters, fearful of being isolated from Brussels during the worst economic crisis in a generation, are showing support for the treaty, according to recent polls.

-By Quentin Fottrell, Dow Jones Newswires; +353-1-676-2189; [email protected]

Click here to go to Dow Jones NewsPlus, a web front page of today's most important business and market news, analysis and commentary: http://www.djnewsplus.com/access/al?rnd=xd64AbyARtpNyONABxvyJA%3D%3D. You can use this link on the day this article is published and the following day.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 06, 2009 13:19 ET (17:19 GMT)

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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