DUBLIN, Ireland — Voters in the Irish Republic, increasingly uncertain about their future, will choose a new government Tuesday to tackle the country's most serious economic crisis in a generation.
With 19% unemployment, a crushing tax burden and crippling public debt, the economy has dominated the campaign for the two principal candidates--Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Charles Haughey.
And the resumption of emigration in significant numbers, for the first time since the 1950s, has injected a sense of urgency and national loss into the economic debate.
"It is the cold confirmation of economic failure," said Vincent Gaul of the Progressive Democratic Party, a candidate for Parliament in an area north of Dublin.
Haughey Big Favorite
Throughout the six-week campaign, opinion polls have consistently given Haughey a large lead. This, coupled with the Irish voters' practice in the past five general elections of turning out the incumbent, has led most political observers to assess FitzGerald's chances of victory as slim.
A poll published in Friday's issue of the Irish Independent showed that among voters who have made up their minds, 46% favor Haughey's Fianna Fail (Republican) Party. This is a slight drop but still far more than the 25% that favor FitzGerald's Fine Gail (United Ireland) Party.
Only the 11% who remain undecided and the relatively strong showing of a minister in Haughey's previous government, Desmond O'Malley, who broke from the Fianna Fail in December of 1985 to form the Progressive Democratic Party, make for any doubt about the outcome.
Many observers believe that under Ireland's complex voting system, which filters and allocates the voters' preferences, Haughey's party will just manage to win an absolute majority of the 166 seats in Parliament if he maintains his present strength. But if his support is further eroded, he could be forced to search for a coalition partner or yield to a coalition of FitzGerald's and O'Malley's parties.
2.3 Million Voters
Despite the gravity of the issues facing the electorate, the campaign has been characterized by Irish informality, a reminder that this is a country of only 2.3 million voters. The faces of the main candidates are so familiar that even the serious newspapers refer to them more often than not as "Charlie," or "Dessie," or "Garret."
Traditionally, Irish politics have turned on more fundamental issues--national identity, Irish unity, the role of the Roman Catholic Church.
A controversial parliamentary vote legalizing the sale of contraceptives, contentious referendums that have rejected abortion and divorce, the landmark Anglo-Irish agreement that gives the republic a consultative voice in British-controlled Northern Ireland--all were part of FitzGerald's four years as prime minister.
Although Haughey has voiced reservations that the Anglo-Irish agreement conflicts with provisions of the Irish constitution rejecting British sovereignty in the north, he has pledged to support the accord and has conspicuously attempted to avoid the subject when challenged by FitzGerald about his commitment to the agreement.
Neither FitzGerald nor Haughey has shown great skill in handling the economy, but the two men differ radically in style.
FitzGerald, 61, came to office in November of 1982 as an intellectual high achiever who had reshaped his demoralized party and led it to its most convincing election victory ever, with 70 seats in Parliament.
In his earlier years, FitzGerald had imbibed the sensitivity of the great Irish poets, had become fluent in French, had run the planning unit of the state-owned airline, Aer Lingus, and, by the early 1970s, had earned a reputation as the country's premier economist.
A devoted family man, he insists, even as prime minister, on personally pushing the wheelchair of his crippled wife at formal occasions.
But the failure of FitzGerald's government to come to grips with a deteriorating economic crisis has made him seem indecisive. It has diluted his high-flying image as Ireland's whiz kid to that of a well-meaning but ineffectual professor who understands the country's problems but is somehow incapable of translating that understanding into action.
His campaign performance has accentuated this image. His complicated expositions on the country's woes have drawn sympathy from his supporters but angry heckling from his opponents.
By contrast, Haughey, also 61, appeals to Irish populist sentiments. He is often criticized for unconcealed ambition but projects a roguish air that is more an asset than a liability in a political climate heavily seasoned with cynicism.
His career has been punctuated by scandal, including his arrest and trial in 1975 for running guns to Irish Republican Army guerrillas in Northern Ireland. This was after he was dismissed as finance minister.