The prominence of the industrial relations debate this year has led some observers (well, OK, maybe it’s just me) to reflect on the anachronistic nature of Australia’s class-based party system. But if you want real anachronism, Ireland is the place.

The Republic of Ireland goes to the polls today, in an election that — considering the number of Australians claiming Irish descent — has received surprisingly little coverage here. One reason may be that the country’s party system defies any easy ideological description, having its origins in the political and religious differences of early last century.

Fianna Fail, Ireland’s most successful party, is led by Prime Minister Bertie Ahern; it is broadly nationalist and pro-Catholic, with pro-interventionist economic policies that have moderated in recent years. It was once known for its IRA sympathies, but they, too, have moderated considerably. In the European Parliament, it sits alongside far-right nationalist parties, but has little in common with most of them.

The main opposition party, Fine Gael, is regarded as more pro-business, but is also more secular and internationalist, although its antecedents include the fascist Blueshirts of the 1930s. To confuse matters more, it has a coalition arrangement with the left-wing Labour Party.

Also represented in the current Parliament are the Progressive Democrats (currently in coalition with Fianna Fail), the Greens, Sinn Fein, a small Trotskyist party and a number of independents.

Despite these complexities, there are some strong similarities with Australia’s position. Ahern has been in power for 10 years, and has presided over considerable economic success. Despite this, his party has been trailing badly in the polls, puzzling many observers as to what it is he’s supposed to have done wrong. It looked as if the electorate’s desire for change was asserting itself.

As the election drew closer, however, Fianna Fail has been making a recovery, and the latest polls show the opposing coalitions running neck and neck.

With 166 members to be elected by proportional representation across 43 multi-member electorates of varying sizes, votes can translate into seats in unpredictable ways. Add in the minor parties and independents, and it could be some time before the shape of the next government becomes clear.

But if Ahern manages to hang on, it might give comfort to another long-serving incumbent facing a difficult election.