DUBLIN (AP) — Irish voters rejected a government plan to abolish the country's much-criticized Senate, a surprise result Saturday that dealt a blow to Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Kenny had personally campaigned for the proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate Ireland's upper house of parliament, arguing the Senate was undemocratic, politically toothless and expensive in an era of brutal budget cuts. All opinion polls during the monthlong campaign had pointed to easy passage.
Instead, voters rejected Friday's referendum question on abolishing the Senate with a 51.7 percent "no" vote. Turnout was just 39 percent, a typically weak figure for Irish referendums, when anti-government voters often come out in droves.
Still, the rejection was widespread across Ireland's constituencies. It suggested a nationwide failure by Kenny's Fine Gael party to win the trust of voters, who had strongly backed his party when he rose to power in 2011 following Ireland's international bailout.
Analysts particularly faulted him for refusing to debate the measure on national television. Instead, Fine Gael staged informal media events and plastered Ireland with posters arguing a "yes" vote would mean "fewer politicians" and annual taxpayer savings of 20 million euros ($27 million). Many analysts branded the figure an exaggeration and insignificant, given Ireland's 138 billion-euro ($187 billion) national debt.
"Sometimes in politics you get a wallop," Kenny told reporters. Asked why he hadn't agreed to a TV debate, Kenny said he had wanted to avoid "a shouting match with political leaders." Supporters of keeping the Senate argued the government now must strengthen the institution. They called for the Senate to gain the power to block legislation, not merely debate and on rare occasions delay it. Only the powerful lower house of parliament, the Dail, is directly elected and can reject government legislation.
"The moral pressure for reform is now absolutely overwhelming," said Dr. John Crown, an independent senator. Any amendments to Ireland's 1937 constitution require majority voter support in referendums. The Irish have demonstrated a tendency to say "yes" to pollsters, but then vote no in private, with anti-government sentiment invariably higher than surveys suggest.
This time, unusually, both the conservative Fine Gael and most left-wing parties backed the idea of ending the Senate, with the nationalist Sinn Fein and hard-left socialists both decrying its air of privilege. Only the parties of the previous disgraced government, Fianna Fail and the Greens, opposed the measure.
Paul Murphy, an Irish Socialist Party member of European Parliament, said the result reflects "deep distrust of the government and shows that people have a desire to check and hold back the pro-austerity political establishment."
Kenny's government enjoys the biggest parliamentary majority in Irish history and doesn't have to face re-election until 2016. But it is publicly divided over the scope of the next austerity budget due to be published Oct. 15.