Counting underway in Stormont Assembly elections but result not expected until Saturday afternoon
Published 06/05/2016 | 08:23
A two-day count to decide the make-up of the next Stormont Assembly has begun in eight centres across Northern Ireland.
ndidates face a long wait to find out if they are among the 108 MLAs bound for Parliament Buildings in Belfast, with the final outcome not expected until Saturday afternoon.
The count for the 18 constituencies in the proportional representation contest began at 8am on Friday with the process of verifying ballots.
The first preference votes will be counted once that exercise is completed.
After a lacklustre campaign, eyes will be on the turnout figure. The percentage of voters casting a ballot in Assembly elections has been in steady decline over the last two decades. It was 54.5% in 2011. Early indications suggest a similar turn-out at this election.
The poll was the first chance to vote for people born after the historic Good Friday Agreement.
Eighteen years on from the signing of the 1998 peace accord which paved the way for a devolved power-sharing government, voters were selecting the latest batch of MLAs to represent them at Stormont. There were 276 candidates standing across the 18 constituencies.
The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein are again likely to emerge as the two largest parties on their respective sides of the unionist/nationalist political divide.
During the campaign, DUP leader Arlene Foster placed particular onus on beating Martin McGuinness in the race to see which one of them takes the First Minister's job ahead of the Deputy First Minister's job.
It would require a significant electoral turnaround for Sinn Fein to topple the DUP as the largest party and most pundits believe it highly unlikely.
Mr McGuinness has played down the importance of the job title, given that both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's roles wield the same authority.
A more significant target for Sinn Fein, which won 29 seats to the DUP's 38 in 2011, might be the 30 seats that would hand it the strength to solely veto Assembly legislation with the use of the much-maligned "petition of concern" voting mechanism.
After a relatively low-key campaign, which has seen social and economic issues feature more prominently than in previous electoral races, the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party face an uphill battle to break the DUP/Sinn Fein grip on power at Stormont.
When all the seats have been filled and talks begin in Belfast to shape the next coalition executive's programme for government, the smaller parties are set to face a choice between re-entering the administration as junior partners or taking up the newly established option of forming an official opposition.
The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), Green Party, Ukip, People Before Profit and the Progressive Unionist Party are among the smaller parties also vying for a place on the Assembly benches.
The first results are expected on Friday afternoon, with the final outcome not expected until 24 hours later.