Fine Gael is in a commanding position to win the election, with at least three alternative options opening to it to form a new government, according to a Sunday Independent/ MillwardBrown Lansdowne opinion poll.
aoiseach Brian Cowen will dissolve the Dail this week, bringing to an end the most unpopular Government in the history of the State, recorded in our poll with a record 95 per cent dissatisfaction rating.
A thousand days to the day after he was elected leader of Fianna Fail, Mr Cowen will officially call a General Election on Tuesday, most likely with a three-week campaign until polling day on February 25.
Today's poll reveals that, despite having a deeply unpopular leader in Enda Kenny, Fine Gael is emerging as the clear favourite to win the election and, when the votes are counted, it may have a number of alternative coalition or other arrangements available to form a government.
The poll has found that Labour has lost significant support in the last five months; and that while the fall in support for Fianna Fail may have bottomed out at a record low level, it has not received the hoped-for immediate bounce upon the election of Micheal Martin as leader.
The poll also indicates that the threat of a significant breakthrough by Sinn Fein may be exaggerated and that an anxious and angry electorate is turning to independent candidates in greater-than-expected numbers.
Conducted face-to-face among a representative sample of 1,022 adults nationwide on Wednesday and Thursday last week, the poll finds the level of party support, excluding 'don't knows', as follows: Fine Gael (34 per cent) up four points; Labour (24 per cent) down 11 points; Fianna Fail (16 per cent) down six points; independent/other (15 per cent) up seven points; Sinn Fein (10 per cent) up six points; Greens (1 per cent) down one point.
A comparable poll was conducted by MillwardBrown Lansdowne for TV3 news last September, shortly after an infamous radio interview by Mr Cowen, and two months before the EU-IMF bailout deal that is causing such anger among the electorate. A significant majority (57 per cent) now want a referendum on the bailout.
The poll shows that Fine Gael and Labour are currently in a strong position to form a government with a comfortable majority -- but the findings also throw open a number of interesting alternative administrations.
If it can sustain and even extend its lead, Fine Gael may well form a government with a number of independent TDs, probably from the right of centre, or, indeed, it could form a minority government with the support of Fianna Fail in opposition.
In the last two days, both Mr Martin and his predecessor, the outgoing Taoiseach Mr Cowen, have indicated that Fianna Fail would consider supporting a minority Fine Gael government.
Labour will be disappointed with its dramatic double-digit fall in support, but it appears to have a solid base at its current level, and is in a position of strength upon which to build in the coming weeks.
However, Eamon Gilmore, still the most popular leader, records a six-point drop in satisfaction in a year to 48 per cent, just two points ahead of Pat Rabbitte when he led Labour into the election in 2007.
Were Labour to gain support during the campaign it might also become open to the party to form a government with Sinn Fein and a buoyant United Left Alliance. Mr Gilmore, who has ruled out government with Sinn Fein, may come under pressure to reverse his position as the campaign wears on.
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, at 10 per cent, is just over three points ahead of its result in the 2007 election, which saw it return with four TDs.
The poll brings no good news for Fianna Fail, not even a bounce in support upon the election of Micheal Martin as its leader last week. Mr Martin was elected leader last Wednesday evening -- the poll was taken throughout Wednesday and Thursday.
The electorate's satisfaction with party leaders can be compared to a Sunday Independent/MillwardBrown Lansdowne poll conducted in February 2010.
It shows Labour's Eamon Gilmore (48 per cent) down six points; Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams (28 per cent) down nine points; Fine Gael's Enda Kenny (26 per cent) unchanged; Greens' John Gormley (17 per cent) down eight points; Brian Cowen (10 per cent) down 12 points.
The pollsters also sought to gauge the impact of Micheal Martin as leader of Fianna Fail: a massive 59 per cent said his elevation would not effect how they would vote; 20 per cent said his leadership made it more likely that they would vote Fianna Fail; but 13 per cent said Martin's election as leader made it less likely; and seven per cent did not know.
Predictably, Mr Martin's leadership was more warmly received in Munster (25 per cent) and Connaught-Ulster (23 per cent) -- but not in Dublin, where 19 per cent said they were less likely to vote Fianna Fail as a result.
His election, therefore, would appear to have done nothing to shore up support for Fianna Fail in the capital. The party is facing decimation in Leinster and wipeout in Dublin, where Fine Gael and Labour look set to divide the spoils.
Mr Martin has a fight on his hands, therefore, to take Fianna Fail to about 20 per cent, at which point it may win around 30 seats, enough to lead the opposition -- if Labour was, indeed, to go into government with Fine Gael.
Fianna Fail has lost support in three chunks, to Fine Gael, Labour and to the independents, who may be about to emerge as the real story of this election.
Just 35 per cent of those who voted Fianna Fail in 2007 said they would do so again; but 22 per cent are going for Fine Gael this time, 19 per cent are choosing Labour and a significant 18 per cent are turning their backs on all parties to go independent.