DUBLIN (AP) — Lawmakers in Ireland expressed a sense of shellshock and division Sunday over whether the country's next government should be a historic alliance of age-old foes — or whether there should be a second election.
With two-thirds of winners declared in the race to fill a 158-member parliament, the new political landscape looked like the most fractured in Irish history. The two perennial centrist heavyweights — governing Fine Gael and opposition Fianna Fail — remained virtually neck and neck, with Fine Gael winners of 31 parliamentary seats, Fianna Fail 30.
Analysts forecast that Fine Gael would finish a few lawmakers stronger than the party's political nemesis Fianna Fail. But neither would be able to form a parliamentary majority with any other single party, only each other.
Voters disgusted by Ireland's 2008 economic collapse, 2010 international bailout and years of austerity deemed necessary to repair the damage threw their support in Friday's election to a dizzying array of anti-government voices. For the first time in Irish electoral history, the combined popular vote for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael slid below 50 percent.
The two parties evolved from opposite sides of the cut-throat civil war that followed Ireland's 1922 independence from Britain. Between them, they have led every Irish government — and have never shared power with each other.
But neither side has ruled out forming a partnership if government stability requires this. Few workable alternatives look available in a parliament increasingly crowded with untested micro-parties and maverick independents hostile to both establishment parties.
The nationalist Sinn Fein party finished in third place with a somewhat disappointing 13.8 percent share of the popular vote. But both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have ruled out cooperation citing Sinn Fein's ties to the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
Leading lawmakers in both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael said Sunday they cannot see how two parties so long committed to tearing each other down can form a united Cabinet that survives for months, never mind five years.
They forecast that coalition talks could take weeks to get going, and failure would force Ireland to hold a second election. Ireland hasn't experienced back-to-back elections amid a finely balanced parliament since 1982.
"There's a sense of bewilderment first of all. We're a long way from sitting down together and talking about what our next options are," said Regina Doherty, a re-elected lawmaker for Meath northwest of Dublin.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan, speaking from an election count center in his native Limerick, said: "We may all be back here again very shortly."
An editorial cartoon in the Sunday Independent newspaper captured the national mood.
In it, a reporter asks the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaders: "What next?"
Prime Minister Enda Kenny replies: "Stable chaos." Micheal Martin counters: "Chaotic stability.'"
Recounts over disputed results in Ireland's complex, multi-round system of proportional representation mean that all winners won't be confirmed until Monday at the earliest.
The new parliament is scheduled to convene March 10 to elect a prime minister.