Support for Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, surged in Ireland’s national elections on Saturday, according to exit polls. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s party, in power since 2011, was weakened but the result left open the possibility that he could still hold onto his office.
If the exit polls prove accurate, the vote boiled down to a three-way tie in a three-way race between Sinn Fein, Mr. Varadkar’s Fine Gael party and the leading opposition party, Fianna Fail. This would give Sinn Fein a shot at joining the next coalition government.
A joint exit poll commissioned by The Irish Times and state broadcaster RTE showed Fine Gael at 22.4 percent, Sinn Fein at 22.3 percent and Fianna Fail at 22.2 percent.
Analysts said the center-left Sinn Fein was boosted by younger and urban voters angered by austerity policies implemented by successive Fianna Fail and Fine Gael governments following the 2008 financial crash. It capitalized on frustrations over housing and health care crises largely blamed on Mr. Varadkar’s party.
Still, this result would offer a political lifeline to Mr. Varadkar who had been expected to finish third.
It could be a mixed bag for Sinn Fein and its leader, Mary Lou McDonald. If the exit polls are correct, the party won its highest-ever share of the national vote. But it chose to run only 42 candidates for the 180-seat Parliament and may have been able to take an even greater share had it fielded more candidates.
“People think the government has taken a deliberate decision to favor landlords over house buyers and fair rents,” said Jane Suiter, a professor of media studies and politics at Dublin City University.
“Sinn Fein have been getting young progressives on board, people who think the number of homeless is morally bankrupt, and who feel they have been left at the mercy of landlords and vested interests, free to charge what rent they like because ordinary people can’t afford to buy,” Ms. Suiter added.
Ireland has been moving in an increasingly liberal direction in recent years. Referendums in 2015 and 2018 led to the legalization of marriage equality and abortion.
While both Fianna Fail and Mr. Varadkar’s party have vowed not to partner with Sinn Fein given its past support for violence, the center-left party could still emerge as a kingmaker and its ascension signals an appetite for a greater emphasis on social welfare after decades of dominance by the pro-market center-right.
Mr. Varadkar, who has led his party for only two and a half years, is Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister and the first with a non-European heritage. His father, a physician, is originally from India.
The exact shape of the next Parliament will take days to emerge, thanks to Ireland’s painstaking system of proportional representation, but it now seems likely that the contest for the premiership will be between Mr. Varadkar and Fianna Fail’s leader, Micheal Martin, with Ms. McDonald possibly playing the kingmaker role.
Mr. Varadkar campaigned on his government’s skillful handling of Brexit, in securing a deal with Prime Minister Boris Johnson that avoided a hard border with physical checks between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, and on presiding over a period of economic growth. But his success on the international stage was largely overshadowed by domestic crises and his party was seen as out of touch with everyday concerns.
Strict market-driven policies overseen by the housing minister, Eoghan Murphy, have been widely blamed for a housing shortage that has led to a decline in homeownership and a rise in rents and homelessness, particularly in Dublin, which was recently named one of the 10 most expensive cities in the world to rent.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s mixed public-private health system has been plagued by soaring costs, staff shortages and waiting lists that can sometimes stretch for years.
The ballooning costs of a proposed new national children’s hospital, which at its present price tag of 1.7 billion euros ($1.86 billion) would be one of the most expensive in the world, has also damaged the party’s reputation for financial management.
Mr. Varadkar’s party also faced several campaign setbacks.
Early last month, his justice minister was forced to back down on a proposal to commemorate police officers who died defending British rule during Ireland’s War of Independence a century ago.
His party also faced public outrage after a homeless man was severely injured when the tent in which he was sleeping was sucked into an industrial machine as it cleared a homeless encampment in wealthy south Dublin.
During the campaign, the social media operation of Fine Gael was widely seen as glib and ineffective, and Mr. Varadkar was criticized as detached and distant by some within his own party.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have taken turns in power since the modern state was founded in 1922 after they took different sides in a civil war. Both pledged during the campaign that they would not form a coalition with Sinn Fein because of its left-wing, high-spending social policies and its past support for the violent I.R.A. during the Northern Ireland Troubles from 1968 to 1998.
Sinn Fein, in turn, has said it will demand an immediate poll on the reunification of Ireland, north and south, as its price for joining any coalition, a policy likely to stir up tensions with London and with Northern Ireland’s unionist community.
Sinn Fein’s success came only seven months after a disastrous election for county and city councils, in which it dropped to less than 10 percent of national support and lost half of its seats.
Because of that recent drubbing, Sinn Fein chose to run a limited number of candidates, meaning it will likely miss out on several seats it would otherwise have taken thanks to the unexpected surge in support.
Ms. McDonald succeeded the veteran Belfast republican Gerry Adams — widely reported to have been a one-time chief of staff of the I.R.A., though he has always denied this — as president of Sinn Fein in 2018.
She is one of a number of younger southern-born Sinn Fein politicians who had no personal involvement in the northern Troubles, but who have gained reputations as formidable debaters and masters of policy.
If she were to emerge as the senior party leader in a coalition she would become the first female head of government in Ireland’s history, although two women — Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese — have already served as head of state, a largely ceremonial office.
Before the election, Mr. Varadkar said that if his party lost, he would seek to retain the leadership of Finn Gael as head of the opposition or as a junior partner in a coalition led by one of the other two largest parties.
However, he could face internal party unrest after leading such a lackluster election campaign, with opposition likely to crystallize around his deputy leader, the present foreign minister, Simon Coveney.