DUBLIN Support for Ireland's governing Fine Gael party surged in a poll on Saturday as it overtook its nearest rivals and amassed an eight percentage point lead days before electing a new leader and prime minister.
Irish premier Enda Kenny, who had long said he would not lead the party into the next election, announced his resignation earlier this month, in part due to pressure from some backbenchers concerned by the party's opinion poll struggles.
However Saturday's survey was the second poll in two days that showed Fine Gael had regained its standing as Ireland's most popular party, a position it now holds in a majority of opinion polls.
Fine Gael support increased to 29 percent from 24 percent a month ago in the Sunday Business Post/Red C poll, while fellow centre-right party Fianna Fail fell seven points to 21 percent.
The left-wing Sinn Fein, the country's third biggest party, also saw its support slip to 15 percent from 18 percent.
The survey of 1,000 people was taken between May 19 and May 25, just after the Fine Gael leadership contest began. Red C chief executive Richard Colwell said it reflected huge media attention on the party and it would have been a surprise if Fine Gael had not got a boost.
However, he said the shift in support was heavily concentrated among under-35s, a potentially encouraging development for Fine Gael who hope their likely next leader, 38-year-old Leo Varadkar, can broaden the party's support base.
It will choose on Friday between Varadkar, who would become Ireland's first openly gay leader and its first of Asian immigrant descent, and fellow minister Simon Coveney. The winner is set to succeed Kenny as prime minister shortly afterwards.
The current Fine Gael-run minority government, which was formed a year ago and relies on Fianna Fail to abstain on key votes to govern, is due to run until the end of 2018.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Gareth Jones)