Shawn Pogatchnik

DUBLIN: Ireland could be on course for a historic alliance between age-old foes — the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail parties — as partial election results Saturday revealed strong voter rejection of the existing coalition government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

Kenny said he was surprised by the unexpectedly strong losses for his centrist Fine Gael and even heavier blows for his left-wing partner, Labour. “Democracy can be very exciting but it’s merciless,” he said.

Yet Ireland’s soft-spoken leader vowed to remain in office atop a new coalition and would seek new allies with the sole aim of creating “as stable a government as can be created.” He declined to rule out a historic partnership with Fianna Fail, which has never shared power with Fine Gael since their founders took opposite sides in Ireland’s civil war 94 years ago.

With all 40 of Ireland’s constituencies reporting official first-round results, Fine Gael attracted 25.5 percent of first-preference votes in Friday’s election, down 10.6 points from the last election in 2011.

Many rounds of ballot counting remain under Ireland’s complex system of proportional representation. Declared winners for all 158 seats in Ireland’s parliament were expected by Monday.

Fianna Fail — which faced political ruin in 2011 after leading the country to the brink of bankruptcy and a humiliating international bailout — mounted an unexpectedly strong comeback. The party took 24.3 percent of first-preference votes and appeared poised to double its parliamentary seats at the expense of Fine Gael and Labour. The latter retained just 6.6 percent support, off 12.8 points from 2011.

Finishing a somewhat lackluster third was the nationalist Sinn Fein, a hard-left critic of the government’s painful but broadly successful pursuit of austerity. Sinn Fein won 13.8 percent support as it sought to capitalize on voter discontent over an era of tax hikes, spending cuts and pruned wages that Ireland is only starting to leave behind.

But protest votes against austerity flew in myriad directions to a half-dozen other small parties and independents.

With Fine Gael and Fianna Fail now nearly even in public support, the question is who can negotiate an alliance sufficient to hold a parliamentary majority: Kenny or Fianna Fail chief Micheal Martin.

Martin, like Kenny, remained coy on the prospect of forging an alliance. But he said voters wanted a new government, so he intended to nominate himself as prime minister when the new parliament convenes March 10.

“We’re committed to doing our best by the country and ensuring that the country gets a good government,” Martin said.