What are the issues?
Ireland’s economy is set to dominate the election. The Republic suffered a severe downturn after the financial crash in 2008, with billions of euros borrowed from the EU and the International Monetary Fund to prevent the banking system from total collapse. The state’s finances were taken over by representatives from the troika – the European Central Bank, the European commission and the IMF – and unemployment hit almost 15%, dealing a shattering blow to an economy that during the Celtic Tiger years enjoyed near full employment.

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The outgoing Fine Gael-Labour party coalition will argue that it has steered the economy out of the storm and into the calmer waters of recovery. Figures released at the beginning of February by the Department of Finance showed unemployment at 8.6%, down from a high of nearly 16% in 2011, and a 7% year-on-year increase in tax revenues to €4.5bn. Much of the increase has come from increased VAT returns – another sign that confidence is back and Irish consumers are starting to spend again Cloud Light.

Fianna Fáil was in power from 1997 to 2011, when it suffered the humiliation of going cap in hand to the IMF for a bailout. It will argue that it had to make the difficult fiscal decisions, including cuts to public services and state sector jobs, that helped to balance the nation’s books, and that Fine Gael and Labour have merely continued to implement the same policies.

Sinn Féin, the Socialist party and alliances such as People Before Profit will stress that the recovery has left a vast section of Irish society behind, and that the pain of austerity was not shared equally. They will point to the fact that none of the most senior bankers who recklessly lent billions to property speculators during the boom years has served a day in jail, while people who refuse to pay recently introduced water charges are sent to prison.

A protest by the Right2Water movement.

A protest by the Right2Water movement. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Water bills will be a particular issue in working-class districts, where voters are expected to punish Labour for its part in introducing them.

Labour is raising another thorny issue in Irish politics: abortion. The party has vowed that if part of the next coalition it will demand a national referendum to abolish the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution. The amendment, introduced via a referendum in 1983, in effect makes the embryo an Irish citizen at conception. Pro-choice campaigners have argued that until the amendment is abolished in a new referendum there can be no real reform of the near-total ban on abortions in Irish hospitals.

Proposing a referendum on the eighth amendment will neither gain nor lose Labour many votes. However, the party could demand a referendum as a condition for re-entering government in a coalition. It will also play up its role in persuading Fine Gael to hold last year’s referendum on gay marriage equality.

What is the voting system?
Since the Irish Free State was founded in 1922, members of its national parliament, Dáil Éireann, have been elected on the basis of proportional representation by a single transferable vote.

Under PR-STV, voters can choose candidates from rival parties and from within the same party, listing their choices in order of preference – a system that has sometimes produced fierce party infighting and rivalries when two or three candidates from the same party are in the same constituency.

Multi-party coalitions have been the norm in Ireland since the 1990s, though earlier in the 20th century there were periods of single party rule, such as after Fianna Fáil’s landslide victory in 1977. The voting system is likely to produce another coalition after 26 February, with independents potentially holding the balance of power.

Who are the main parties and candidates?
All eyes are on the outgoing prime minister, Enda Kenny, and his Fine Gael party, which was forged in the Irish civil war as the side that accepted the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Since independence, no Fine Gael taoiseach has ever been re-elected for a second term of office. Kenny may be on the edge of making history by finally doing that. He leads a moderate centre-right party that is pro-market, pro-European and with two distinctive wings, a socially liberal, urban and professional base, and a rural grassrootsfollowing with strong links to the farming community.

Fianna Fáil used to be the most successful force in Irish politics, with history makers of their own such as former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who from 1997 won a hat-trick of election victories. More to the centre than the right, Fianna Fáil has been the archetypal pragmatic political force, with strong links to builders and property investors as well as having a one-time strong working-class membership. Like Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil is pro-European. The parties’ economic policies seem at times to be indistinguishable.

Fiona Johnston of Sinn Féin at her home in Dundalk, Co Louth.

Sinn Féin, once umbilically linked to the Provisional IRA, has benefited enormously from the Irish peace process, with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland) becoming internationally renowned political figures. The party holds 14 seats in the Dáil but could double that number as it has worked hard to exploit the anger over cuts in urban areas, particularly in Greater Dublin.

The party takes a populist and pragmatic approach to economic issues. It opposes austerity measures in the Republic but stands accused by its opponents of double-standards by agreeing to UK Treasury-imposed public sector reforms and cuts in Northern Ireland. Also in the north, it has joined unionists in demanding a low corporation tax rate similar to the 12.5% the Irish Republic has used to woo foreign direct investment. Yet in the south it has previously argued for a higher corporation tax rate.

Irish Labour is one of the oldest parties in the state, but faces an existential threat in this general election. A social democratic, moderate left force, Labour has faced accusations of betrayal by those further to the left for supporting austerity measures in government aimed at driving down Ireland’s crippling national debt. Led by the outgoing deputy prime minister (tánaiste), Joan Burton, Labour will argue that while in office it has championed key liberal causes including the historic marriage equality referendum last year. Labour, like Fianna Fáil, has strong links to the Irish trade union movement, although several unions have distanced themselves from the party over issues such as the introduction of water charges.