LONDON — LONDON -- Ireland will vote today in a national election that nobody wanted -- and which is expected to provide only inconclusive results.
None of the Irish political parties is expected to garner a clear majority in the 166-seat Dail, or parliament, so that a round of political horse-trading will be necessary for one of the two major parties to form a coalition government.
And the process has been complicated by the decision to hold a simultaneous national referendum on liberalizing Ireland's tough anti-abortion constitutional provisions.
The political crisis began three weeks ago when Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, head of the largest party, Fianna Fail, indulged in a personal attack on the leader of his coalition partner, Desmond O'Malley, of the Progressive Democrats.
When he did not receive an appropriate apology, Mr. O'Malley's party pulled out of the governing coalition and Mr. Reynolds lost a vote of confidence in Parliament -- resulting in a snap election months before it would normally have been due.
By forcing the unwelcome election, Mr. Reynolds -- who had taken over the leadership last February after a bruising fight with political patriarch Charles Haughey -- has seen his personal popularity plummet to a favorable rating of only 24 percent, according to one sampling.
In the last Parliament, Fianna Fail had 77 seats, lacking an absolute majority by six votes, and it is expected to lose additional seats in today's vote, which would mean a new coalition if it seeks to govern.
Fianna Fail's losses are expected to strengthen the position of the second-largest party, Fine Gael, which might also be able to form a new coalition under the leadership of party chief John Bruton.
It is not clear how the national election will be be affected by the voting on the abortion questions.
These call for slightly liberalizing the constitution to permit abortion when the mother's life is threatened, to allow abortion information to be disseminated and to legalize travel to another country for the purpose of getting an abortion.
Polls indicate that the public is slightly in favor of liberalizing the no-abortion rule.
At first, it seemed that the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy would not comment nationally on the referendums but three senior members recently advocated a "no" vote.