Irish PM to call February national election

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar will ask President Michael D. Higgins to dissolve parliament on Tuesday in order to hold a parliamentary election in February, the president’s office said.

The Irish Times and national broadcaster RTE said Varadkar had told his ministers the ballot would be on Feb. 8.

The campaign is set to pit the 40-year-old prime minister’s record on the fast growing economy against struggling services, particularly in the health service and expensive housing market, in a contest polls suggest is too close to call.

Varadkar’s Fine Gael and the fellow center-right Fianna Fail are closely matched in opinion polls, and some distance ahead of their other rivals, increasingly the likelihood that one of the two parties with similar policies on the economy and Brexit will lead another minority administration.

Fine Gael has led a minority government since 2016 through a cooperation deal with Fianna Fail, their fiercest rivals, after neither party came close to getting enough votes to form a working coalition last time out.

Varadkar, 40, became the once-staunchly Catholic country’s first gay premier in 2017, a year after the last election, when his party hoped a generational shift could lead them to a third successive term for the first time.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail both refuse to govern with the country’s third largest party Sinn Fein, once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), meaning smaller parties such as the resurgent Greens could decide whether Varadkar or Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin become the next prime minister.

Reporting by Padraic Halpin, Editing by William Maclean

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