(CN) — Irish voters go to the polls Saturday with the possibility of a major upset by Sinn Féin, a center-left nationalist party affiliated with the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles and now campaigning to unify Ireland in the wake of Brexit.
A key poll this week found Sinn Féin Ireland's most popular party, with 25% of voters saying they favor it and its promises of higher social spending.
It is unlikely that Sinn Féin will form a government because it has fielded too few candidates for Ireland's parliament to do that, but it could try to form a coalition government made up of smaller left-wing parties.
The poll — conducted for the Irish Times newspaper — was a shock to Ireland's political establishment and cast into doubt the long-running duopoly of Ireland's two center-right parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The two competing parties have run government since Ireland gained independence in 1922.
Both parties have ruled out governing with Sinn Féin, accusing it of still being tied to the IRA.
Despite a good economy, the governing Fine Gael government and its rival are coming under pressure due to an acute shortage of affordable housing, and rising costs and waiting times in the country's public-private health system.
On Saturday, Irish voters will pick members to the 160-seat Irish parliament in Dublin, known as the Dáil, and by extension a new prime minister, called a taoiseach. No party is expected to win enough seats to govern outright.
The current taoiseach is Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael, whose liberal-conservative party is seeking a third successive term at the helm. His main challenger is Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, a party long known to favor big business, which was blamed for Ireland's economic turbulence during the financial crisis that began in 2008.
But in the runup to this election, the attention is on Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin. She took over from Gerry Adams in 2018, breaking with the party's past as the political wing of the IRA. Dublin-born McDonald was not involved in the conflict over Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.
She is Sinn Féin's first female leader and appears to be gaining in popularity thanks to growing support for Sinn Féin among women. Politically, Sinn Féin is on the left and supports socially liberal policies.
Ireland has undergone profound changes in recent years, and seen abortion and same-sex marriage legalized, divorce laws loosened and the government seeking to divest its investments in fossil fuels. At the same time, though, Irish have been hurt by rising living costs.
The United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union is also a factor in the election. The next Irish government will be deeply involved in negotiations on the relationship between the EU and the U.K. Ireland is an EU member.
After the 2016 Brexit referendum, figuring out how to keep the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland free of border checks became a major hurdle in negotiations between the EU and the U.K., leading to the resignation of British Prime Minister Theresa May last year and a deadlocked House of Commons. A return to border checks is considered dangerous because it could reignite sectarian violence on the island.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson resolved the problem by agreeing to leave Northern Ireland closely aligned to EU rules and laws. This arrangement upset Protestants in Northern Ireland, who saw it as a betrayal and furthering the aim of Irish Catholics who want to see Northern Ireland become part of Ireland.
Irish Prime Minister Varadkar has sought to play up his success in Brexit talks and said his government is well-positioned to carry on its work in the next round of talks over the relationship between the EU and U.K. His party is telling voters it is “the best team for Brexit.” But the message doesn't seem to be convincing voters, as his party's popularity wanes.
Sinn Féin, meanwhile, has made unifying Ireland a central theme and said it wants voters in Ireland and Northern Ireland to vote on unification before the next Irish general election in 2025. A majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU and polls now suggest a slim majority of Northern Irish favor unification.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are not opposed to unification, but both parties say a referendum should not be held soon because it could lead to a renewal of conflict in Northern Ireland.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)