Irish prime minister and leader of the Fine Gael party Leo Varadkar (C) poses with the leaders of Fianna Fail party, Micheal Martin (L) and Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald before the start of a televised debate this week. Photo by Aidan CrawleyEPA-EFE
Feb. 7 (UPI) -- The job of Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar appeared in jeopardy as polls indicated his Fine Gael party was slumping and nationalists Sinn Fein were surging ahead of Saturday's national election.
The 41-year-old Varadkar has been prime minister -- or Taoiseach -- since 2017, when he took over from Enda Kenny as leader of the center-right Fine Gael. His minority government has operated through a "confidence-and-supply" agreement with arch-rival party Fianna Fail, through which it is supplied the necessary votes to pass measures on an issue-by-basis.
The biggest issue they have agreed on in the past two years has been Brexit -- both parties bitterly opposed any attempts to set up a hard border between Northern Ireland and European Union member Ireland as Britain exited the EU.
Vardakar, however, was forced to call for elections in December when relations began to fray with FIanna Fail leader Micheal Martin and several independent lawmakers needed for a majority in the Dail Éireann -- the lower house of the Irish Parliament.
The latest polls showed both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail faltering at the expense of a surging Sinn Fein headed by Mary Lou McDonald, who was threatening to upend a duopoly of power shared by the two centrist parties since the Republic of Ireland's founding.
An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published this week showed Sinn Fein leading with 25 percent, followed by FIanna Fail at 23 percent and Fine Gael at 20 percent.
Sinn Fein is running only 42 candidates nationwide for the 160-seat Dail, leaving it unable to form a majority government on its own. However, if the poll results hold up, McDonald would be put in a position as kingmaker, even though the two establishment parties have ruled out forming a coalition government with Sinn Féin.
Analysts expected Fianna Fáil to win about 55 seats, with Fine Gael taking 35 and Sinn Féin up to 30.