(Bloomberg) -- Ireland’s main opposition party Sinn Fein has suffered a set back in the country’s local elections in a blow to its ambitions to enter government for the first time in the next election. 

“This was not the result we expected, we hoped to make more gains in the local elections and perform better in the European elections and we accept that,” said Sinn Fein’s health spokesperson David Cullinane on national broadcaster RTE on Monday.  Party leader Mary Lou McDonald expressed disappointment and said they would regroup and reflect on the results Sunday as the results were being counted.  

The party had been widely expected to enter into government in the next national elections, which must be held by March 2025. However, main coalition government partners Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have filled most seats in the local elections and are expected to keep all of their MEP seats in the European parliament election. Independent candidates, many of whom are running on an anti-immigration platform, also performed well. 

“It’s a terrible result for Sinn Fein,” said Gary Murphy, professor of politics at Dublin City University. “It’s a precipitous fall for a party that everybody thought would get the most seats and the most votes at both these local and European elections and the general election. There is no way of sugar coating this.”

By Monday morning, 826 of the local seats out of 949 had been filled with 215 for Fine Gael, 205 for Fianna Fail, 164 for independent candidates and only 91 for Sinn Fein. Counting is continuing in the European parliament elections but indications from early tallies show that Sinn Fein could lose a seat. 

It is a disappointment for the group, which had seen their support decrease recently as voters main concern shifted from the housing crisis to immigration. According to an opinion poll in May, the party’s support dropped by five points to 23%. The party reached peak support in July 2022 at 36%, according to the Irish Times polling data. 

While analysts say voting patterns are different in local and European Parliament elections, it is not a good prediction for the main opposition group. While the party faces an uphill battle, the results highlight changes in Irish voting patterns. “I don’t think Sinn Fein should be written off,” said Murphy. “In a general election will be voting for a government and that’s the difference with these elections. This doesn’t spell the death knell of the party or even of its leader.” 

There have now been calls for an early general election to capitalize on the better than expected performance by the government parties. Prime Minister Simon Harris said Sunday his position on the government running its full term hasn’t changed but there has been speculation that an election in autumn after the budget could now be on the cards. 

“There is no value to wait until 2025,” said Murphy. Outgoing MEP Ciaran Cuff of minority government coalition Green Party said an election this year is “inevitable.” 

The results are a boost for Harris, who only took up the role of prime minister in March. His appointment “must have something to do with it,” said Murphy. “They were stagnant in the polls under Leo Varadkar. He has certainly given them an energy.” 

--With assistance from Olivia Fletcher.

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