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Ireland's PM Bertie Ahern Predicted to Win Elections - 2002-05-15

Public opinion polls from Ireland indicate voters are ready to re-elect Prime Minister Bertie Ahern amid broad satisfaction with the country's economy.

Irish voters appear to be poised to give Mr. Ahern's Fianna Fail party another term in office when they go to the polls on Friday.

Voter preference surveys published Wednesday showed Fianna Fail leading the six-party race with at least 45 percent approval.

The main opposition party, Fine Gael, was preferred by about 20 percent of the voters surveyed. The opinion poll results came out just hours after the only televised debate between Mr. Ahern and his chief rival, Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan.

They sparred over the amount of crime and corruption affecting the Irish republic, but they generally agreed on the contentious issue of the British province of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Noonan said he is worried that political extremists could come to dominate Northern Ireland's government. "I would be concerned about the elections in the north next May because I would be fearful that in certain circumstances moderate parties might be replaced by extreme parties," he said.

Mr. Ahern said he would build on the progress of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement aimed at ending three decades of political violence between Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant communities.

"I think we've moved it a great deal. It's not a long way from over. The important thing now is to try to build the spirit of the Good Friday agreement into the communities," Mr. Ahern said.

Political observers say most voters are pleased with Ireland's economic performance under Mr. Ahern. Among them is Michael Marsh, a political scientist at Dublin's Trinity College.

"This time, on the whole, we've had five years of growth, five years of broad satisfaction with government, and I think if one looked around the world people would be astounded if Fianna Fael did not win this election," Mr. Marsh said.

Nearly three million Irish citizens will be eligible to vote in Friday's election and the first results will come in on Saturday.

Observers will be looking to see if Mr. Ahern's party can win an outright majority of seats in the new parliament, something that has not happened in 25 years.