DUBLIN — This was meant to be Leo Varadkar’s date with destiny.
After successfully steering Ireland through years of high-stakes and nail-biting Brexit uncertainty, Saturday’s election was the moment when a grateful nation could finally reward their modern and telegenic prime minister at the ballot box.
Instead, the prime minister could face being kicked out of office, after an election campaign that has proved much more of a struggle than he bargained for. Even he admits his party are the “underdogs.”
Internationally, the Irish prime minister is something of a star. Irish voters are by and large pleased with the job he has done of holding Ireland’s corner against British efforts to divide and conquer the EU27. The Brexit outcome also avoided a no-deal exit that would have hammered the Irish economy and destabilized the fragile peace on the island.
But the Brexit saga has taken up much of the government’s bandwidth, leaving domestic problems to fester and his Fine Gael party vulnerable. Brexit kudos appears to be counting for little in a campaign in which voters have turned their attention homewards. The result: Fine Gael has sagged badly in the polls.
“I do believe we are catching up. This election is winnable, and it’s all to play for. In many ways it is the most important in a generation” — Leo Varadkar
Addressing a gathering of supporters in the final push ahead of the vote, Varadkar said the election had been called in a “window of opportunity” before a March European Council summit to agree an EU position on trade talks with the U.K. that could make or break the Irish economy.