DUBLIN — Human rights activist and poet Michael D. Higgins appeared on course Friday to be elected Ireland's president after his main rival suffered a last-minute collapse in support, early unofficial returns and an opinion poll showed.
Ballot-counters estimated that Higgins was leading in most Republic of Ireland districts with around 40 percent of firt-preference votes, nearly double his main challenger, businessman and reality TV celebrity Sean Gallagher.
Challenging Gallagher for second place was former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness, who temporarily stepped down as deputy leader of the government in the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland. McGuinness, who wasn't eligible to vote in the election because he's a Northern Ireland resident, was expected to resume his Belfast job.
Four other candidates to be Ireland's ceremonial head of state trailed far behind. One of them, Dublin gay rights activist David Norris, conceded defeat and declared Higgins the inevitable victor.
"I'm very happy to be an Irishman under the presidency of Michael D. Higgins," said Norris, who lauded his rival as a political maverick, an artsy intellectual and social liberal who would "speak out on behalf of the marginalized."
Official results from Thursday's election are expected Saturday. Ireland's complex voting system permits voters to rate candidates in order of preference. This requires several rounds of ballot-counting.
Gallagher, the star judge on a business-talent TV competition called "Dragon's Den," had been leading in opinion polls until Monday — when his image imploded during the campaign's last live TV debate.
McGuinness presented evidence that Gallagher had served as a "bagman," a collector of undocumented cash donations, from businessmen to Ireland's long-dominant Fianna Fail party. Voters threw Fianna Fail out of power in February after it was blamed for leading Ireland to the brink of bankruptcy and an international bailout.
Gallagher, who ran as an independent and downplayed his Fianna Fail background, stumbled as he tried to explain the circumstances of one particular donation he allegedly collected from a border fuel smuggler. Analysts said that admission linked Gallagher to Fianna Fail's poor ethical record and fatally damaged his candidacy.
A survey published Friday by Irish pollsters RedC said it telephoned 1,100 actual voters Thursday and found a massive flight from Gallagher in the campaign's dying days.
About 38 percent said they had decided whom to support only following that TV debate. Some 28 percent said they had switched support in the past week — and 58 percent of those said they had dumped Gallagher.
The poll had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
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