Fine Gael leadership contest vote under way

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are vying to become the new leader of Fine Gael
Image caption Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are vying to become the new leader of Fine Gael

Voting is under way in the contest to succeed Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael, the political party that leads the Republic of Ireland's government.

Either Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney will become the new Fine Gael leader on Friday 2 June.

Almost certainly, within a fortnight, that person will become taoiseach or Irish prime minister.

Enda Kenny, 66, who was elected taoiseach in 2011, resigned as Fine Gael leader earlier this month.

He will continue as taoiseach until Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament) chooses a successor.

On Sunday night in Cork, Mr Coveney's home city, the party held the last of its four hustings, screened online, for the parliamentary party, local councillors and members to make up their mind.

Until then, the debates had been largely gentlemanly.

However, the gloves briefly came off with Mr Varadkar, the overwhelming favourite, accusing his rival of engaging in "divisive and dishonest" politics.

Mr Coveney, the son of a former Fine Gael minister who died tragically while out walking, accused his opponent of "spending money we don't have".

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Image caption Enda Kenny led his party for 15 years and leaves as its most successful taoiseach

Mr Varadkar, minister for social protection, is regarded as a centre-right politician aiming his policies at "those who get up early in the morning".

The Housing Minister, Mr Coveney, is seen as more centre-left often reminding his audience that he also cares about those who have nothing to get up for.

Mr Varadkar, a medic and the son of an Indian doctor, denies he lacks compassion saying that there are enough people "misrepresenting" Fine Gael without others in the party also doing so.

Whatever differences the two men have about their political priorities there are realities that limit what they can do.

They are in government with different shades of Independent TDs.

There is a programme for government and understandings that depends, on its very survival, on the main opposition - party Fianna Fail - in motions of confidence and financial matters for two more budgets.

Those voting this week ultimately have to decide whose face on the general election poster is most likely to benefit Fine Gael, knowing that such an election may not be very far off.

The result will be decided by an electoral college.

State led by rainbow leader?

The 73 members of the parliamentary party comprising of TDs, senators and MEPs have 65% of the vote; 235 local councillors have 10%, while an estimated 21,000 members have a 25% vote-share.

Even before the voting began, so many members of the parliamentary party had pledged their support for Mr Varadkar, meaning he was on about about 45% before a single vote had been counted.

He is also ahead with declared support from those councillors who have expressed an opinion, but the contest among party members is believed to be closer.

The contest has brought out qualities that the public had not seen before in both men.

Mr Varadkar, who revealed that he was gay several months before the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 is normally seen as shy but was able to joke about his background.

"My mum is from Waterford and my Dad is from India, that's where I get the year-round tan and the funny surname," he said in Cork.

Mr Coveney also showed he could be witty and good humoured.

But it says much about how the state has changed that this once almost white mono-cultural society has increasingly become a rainbow society that will soon almost certainly be led by a rainbow leader.

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