DUBLIN (Reuters) - The threat of political upheaval early next year and a lack of cross-party support for government recovery plans mean Ireland will have only a very small window of relative calm to tap investors for fresh funds in 2011.
Unlike other European political systems, Ireland's major political parties are not demarcated along right-wing/left-wing lines but rather on what side they took in a civil war in the early 1920s.
Here are some facts about Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the two main parties; Labour, a more traditional left-wing party set to play a major role in any new coalition and two smaller groups -- the Greens and Sinn Fein -- likely to be in opposition.
Seats: 83 (50 pct of lower-house)
Status: Main government party. Centrist policies. Lying in third place in most recent opinion polls, its 13-year reign looks certain to end whenever a general election is called.
History: Translated as "Soldiers of Destiny," Fianna Fail was founded in 1926. Nationalist in ethos, its roots lie in the struggle for Irish independence and the side that fought against a 1921 treaty giving Ireland self-governing dominion status within the British Empire. The treaty sparked civil war.
It has dominated Irish politics, only sitting in opposition on six occasions -- or for less than 20 years -- and never for longer than one term since first winning power in 1932. Aligned in Europe to the liberal European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, it is the only party to have commanded overall majorities in Ireland's lower-house and each of its seven leaders has served as Prime Minister.
Leader: Brian Cowen (50), a former finance and health minister who took office in May 2008, following the resignation of Bertie Ahern. He is the most unpopular leader in modern Irish history due to a perception he did not do enough to prevent Ireland's current financial crisis, a gruff public persona and a recent scandal over his drinking habits. He has faced two parliamentary confidence votes in the space of a year and calls to stand down from members of his party.
Policies: Cowen and fellow Fianna Fail Finance Minister Brian Lenihan have led Ireland's austerity drive, pushing through three austerity budgets in just over a year and plan to make well over 3 billion euros worth of savings in December's budget for 2011 to help cut the country's budget deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2014.
Lenihan has also spearheaded a bank rescue that has seen the state guarantee all its banks, introduce a "bad bank" plan to clean up their balance sheets and recapitalise and nationalise the sector to the tune of up to 50 billion euros.
Foreign investors have praised Fianna Fail's efforts to turn the economy around but Irish people are angry at the party's courtship of property developers during the go-go years of the "Celtic Tiger" economy and its failure to reign in reckless bank lending and runaway property prices.
Seats: 51 (31 pct of lower-house)
Status: Opposition party. Centre-right policies. Likely to lead new coalition despite falling into second place in recent opinion polls.
History: Founded in 1933, its roots also lie in the struggle for Irish independence and the side that supported the Anglo Irish Treaty in the civil war. Describing itself as "a party of the progressive centre," Fine Gael is traditionally seen as the party representing big farmers and city professionals.
Allied to the centre-right European People's Party, Fine Gael has been in government six times since 1933, leading a coalition featuring Labour on each occasion and last governing between 1994 and 1997. It is the largest party at local level, surpassing Fianna Fail for the first time last year.
Leader: Enda Kenny (59), a former minister for tourism and trade and the longest-serving MP in Ireland's lower house. Took charge of the party in 2002 but his popularity ratings have been consistently low and he survived a strong leadership challenge from his deputy in June. His ratings are seen as the key reason why Labour has overtaken Fine Gael in some recent opinion polls.
Policies: It backs the government's goal of reducing the budget deficit to 3 percent of GDP by 2014, favours spending cuts over taxation and would rather frontloading savings. It has pledged to keep corporation tax at its low 12.5 percent level.
Fine Gael also says it would sell state assets and use the country's cash reserves to introduce an 18 billion euro stimulus package. If elected, it would seek to abolish Ireland's second chamber and reduce the number of lower-house MPs by 20.
Seats: 20 (12 pct of lower house)
Status: Opposition party. Set to surpass its best election showing of 33 seats in the 1992 parliamentary poll and be a key player in any new coalition government.
History: Founded in 1912 as the political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress, Labour is Ireland's only major left wing party. Unlike the smaller and more left-wing Sinn Fein, Labour rarely takes its members to the streets and has played a key role in the traditional consensual politics in Ireland.
Affiliated in Europe with the Party of European Socialists (PES), the party has been in government seven times since the foundation of the state in 1921 and unlike Fine Gael, has once shared power with Fianna Fail between 1992 and 1994. It has always been a junior coalition partner and has only once held the prized position of finance minister.
Leader: Eamon Gilmore (55), a former junior minister for marine, member of the now defunct Democratic Left party and former leader of the Union of Students in Ireland. He is the most popular political leader and his polished performances have helped him appear a more suitable alternative prime minister than Fine Gael's Kenny. His popularity helped push Labour to the top of an opinion poll for the first time in June.
Policies: Like Fine Gael, Labour also believes Ireland should cut its budget deficit to the EU-agreed target of 3 percent by 2014 but would tax the rich rather than overly rely on spending cuts to get there. The party strongly opposed the set up of the country's "bad bank" and does not support the government's bank guarantee scheme.
Labour has also proposed dipping into reserves earmarked for public pensions to create a strategic investment bank to spur job creation and public investment.
Seats: 6 (4 pct of lower house)
Status: Junior government party. By propping up an unpopular government, the Greens risk losing all their seats at the next election and are unlikely to be a part of any new coalition.
History: Formed in 1981 by a teacher who was active in the Vegetarian Society and Friends of the Earth, the Green Party took its first seat in parliament in 1989 and entered government for the first time in 2007, securing two cabinet positions.
Affiliated with the European Green Party, it says its founding principles are based on peace, democracy, protection of the environment and social justice. The party lost all but three of its 18 local government seats last year.
Leader: John Gormley (51), the current environment and local government minister served as mayor of Dublin in the mid 1990s.
Policies: The Greens have backed Cowen throughout their term together and have pushed through some of their own policies, often to the dismay of some Fianna Fail members, including a new civil partnership law and animal rights legislation.
The party want to ban corporate donations and give Dublin a directly elected mayor before its term in office ends.
Seats: 4 (2 pct of lower house)
Status: Opposition party. Leftist policies. Far removed from other parties so highly unlikely to be part of any new coalition.
History: An Irish republican party seeking to end British rule in Northern Ireland, it shares power with the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the north but is the smallest political party in parliament in the south.
It took its current form in 1970 but the original Sinn Fein, founded in 1905, formed an unofficial parliament in 1918 during Ireland's push for independence and Ireland's two main parties formed out of its demise.
Leader: The party's president is Gerry Adams, a former guerrilla suspect during Northern Ireland's decades of violence, while its leader in the Republic of Ireland's parliament is Caoimhghin O' Caolain (57).
Policies: Sinn Fein are the only party not to adhere to the government's aim of reducing the budget deficit to 3 percent of GDP by 2014. It opposes the government's bank plans and has said Bank of Ireland, the only bank not likely to fall under majority state control, should be nationalised.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; editing by Carmel Crimmins)