SHAWN POGATCHNIK, AP
DUBLIN (AP) — Sinn Fein enjoyed a potentially historic surge in support Friday as ballots were counted for seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, a contest triggered by the Irish nationalist party in a bitter showdown with its longtime Protestant partners in government.
At stake in the outcome from Thursday’s snap election is the revival or demise of power-sharing between Irish Catholics and British Protestants, the central objective of the British territory’s 1998 peace accord.
Early partial results from a ballot count expected to run until Saturday afternoon pointed to solid gains for Irish Catholic-backed Sinn Fein.
It is seeking to overtake the Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and become the No. 1 party for the first time in Northern Ireland — an achievement that would give Sinn Fein the right to the top government post of “first minister.”
Under Northern Ireland’s complex system of proportional representation, five lawmakers will be elected from each of 18 districts in descending order of popularity. The process requires several rounds of ballot recounting to transfer votes from confirmed winners and losers to those still in contention. Early results often cannot pinpoint who might win the final seat.
Sinn Fein achieved poll-topping results in nine districts, including Mid-Ulster, where the party’s new leader in Northern Ireland, 40-year-old Michelle O’Neill, was mobbed by supporters. She could become first minister if Sinn Fein overtakes the Democratic Unionist Party and the two sides can repair a gulf in trust and respect that destroyed the last coalition.
The final tally of first-preference votes — the core measure of party popularity — showed the Democratic Unionists still leading with 28.1 percent, down 1 point from the last election 10 months ago. Sinn Fein barely trailed with 27.9 percent, up 4 points.
Many analysts forecast that the Democratic Unionists would stay barely ahead of Sinn Fein in seat numbers in the 90-member Assembly, but it could come down to handfuls of transferred votes on Saturday.
With only a quarter of winners declared Friday afternoon, Sinn Fein had won 12 seats, the Democratic Unionists eight.
Commentators credited the Sinn Fein surge to Catholic voters’ anger at the Democratic Unionists, especially outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster, who was blamed for overseeing a wasteful “green energy” program and for fostering a culture of insult and disrespect toward Sinn Fein.
Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness triggered the election by resigning in January, declaring the vote a referendum on Foster’s leadership.
Democratic Unionist lawmakers publicly insist they won’t let Sinn Fein dictate who their leader should be. But Foster, party chief for barely a year, could be forced to step down should Sinn Fein overtake her party in the final seat tally.
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