Less than half of voters go to polls
Close finish predicted for Gallagher and Higgins
FEWER than one person in every two is likely to have voted to choose the next president despite a bitterly fought contest between a record seven candidates.
The result is expected to be a close finish between Independent Sean Gallagher and the Labour Party's Michael D Higgins.
In general, turnout to elect the ninth president of Ireland was low yesterday across the country, with election staff predicting that it was likely to be below 50pc. In eight polling stations in the Dublin South Central constituency, average turnout was just 16pc at one point yesterday evening.
Mr Higgins had been trailing behind Mr Gallagher in the final opinion polls of the campaign. But Mr Gallagher suffered a blow from the controversy on RTE's 'Frontline' presidential debate over whether he had accepted a €5,000 cheque on behalf of Fianna Fail.
Red C managing director Richard Colwell said the lead of up to 14pc that Mr Gallagher had over Mr Higgins in the final opinion polls of the campaign was not as large as it appeared.
"You can close it if when you're losing votes, they go straight to your competitor. If you go down five and they go up five, suddenly that 14pc gap is only a 4pc gap. And one-third of Gallagher's support had Michael D as their next choice," he said.
Labour strategists are also hoping that Mr Higgins's hardcore voters will help him beat off the challenge of Mr Gallagher, whose supporters are slightly less likely to turn out. But Mr Gallagher has said that he is overwhelmed by the level of support for his campaign, with more than 2,000 people joining his canvassing team.
Mr Higgins was accompanied yesterday morning by his wife Sabina and sons, Michael and Daniel, as he arrived to cast his vote at Bushypark National School in Galway city.
"I'm confident, but everything really depends on the turnout. There is also a great sense of relief at this stage and I don't think I could have improved on the campaign in any way," he said.
The total electorate currently stands at 3.1 million but experts said that presidential election turnout figures were always likely to be lower than the 70pc figure in last Feburary's general election -- when parties were mobilising all their volunteers in every constituency.
Trinity College political science Professor Michael Marsh said this contest did not have the intensity of the battle between Mary Robinson and Brian Lenihan Senior.
"You would not expect this one, despite the entertainment of the campaign, to be one that people felt really strongly about," he said.
There was a 46.7pc turnout in the 1997 presidential election when Mary McAleese was elected. Professor Marsh noted that Fianna Fail did not run a candidate this time and also cast doubt on how much Fine Gael had mobilised for its struggling candidate Gay Mitchell.
Mr Mitchell and Independents David Norris, Mary Davis and Dana Rosemary Scallon all risk losing a €200,000 election expenses refund from the taxpayer unless they get 12.5pc of the vote. And Mr Mitchell also runs the risk of finishing behind Martin McGuinness.
Union of Students in Ireland president Gary Redmond said that tens of thousands of students had been disenfranchised because polling day was set for a Thursday -- when they were unable to return home to vote.
"It's nothing short of a disgrace that we had both Fine Gael and Labour screaming at the previous Government for holding elections on a Thursday -- and now in their first time out, they go back to the old ways," he said.
Turnout is expected to be boosted slightly by the fact that voters also had two referenda to decide on -- one on judges' pay and the other on Oireachtas inquiries. And in the Dublin West constituency, the by-election to replace former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was also taking place.
Although counting of votes in the presidential election will begin at 9am today, the declaration of the winner in Dublin Castle is not expected to take place until Saturday.
This is due to the fact that there are 43 different constituencies supplying results to Dublin Castle, the need to separate ballot papers for the two referendums and the by-election, and the possibility of recounts being called.
Predictions for the two Galway constituencies were that the eventual turnout would not be far off 50pc. Similar turnout figures of 25pc were reported for Wexford and Louth -- where Mr Gallagher lives.
But electoral officers in other parts of the country said it would be lucky if turnout was far above 40pc.