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The divided voters of Northern Ireland held the fate of power-sharing in their hands Wednesday as they decided who should lead - or thwart - a Catholic-Protestant administration.
For 4 1/2 years, politicians have failed to revive power-sharing, the central goal of the province's 1998 peace accord. That could be about to change following the election of a new Northern Ireland Assembly, a 108-member body with the power to form a cross-community Cabinet.
Polling stations across this British territory of 1.7 million were opening for 15 hours Wednesday to permit voters to pick candidates in order of preference. Ballots were to be counted and recounted several times Thursday and Friday to determine winners in all 18 of Northern Ireland's six-seat constituencies.
Britain expects the newly elected assembly to appoint a full 12-member administration next week at Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he wants to transfer control of government departments to Belfast hands by March 26. But if the assembly fails to meet the deadline, Blair has promised to disband it the following day, effectively giving up on a decade of toiling to deliver a power-sharing system.
Opinion polls and political analysts widely expect the opposite poles of political opinion - the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein - to strengthen their position as the two most popular parties. The top vote-winning party on each side of the community wins the right to claim joint leadership of the administration and most Cabinet posts.
But the Democratic Unionists have not committed to cooperating with Sinn Fein, which for decades supported the Irish Republican Army's failed 1970-1997 campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force.
Both parties' moderate rivals - the Protestants of the Ulster Unionists and the Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or SDLP - appealed to voters to return to supporting them as the best way to ensure that power-sharing could function smoothly.
"If you want a functioning Stormont on the 26th of March, I can only appeal to people to pick the parties that will deliver it," said Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey, whose party hemorrhaged Protestant support at the last assembly election in 2003 because it included Sinn Fein in the Cabinet.
A moderate-led coalition governed Northern Ireland until October 2002, when it collapsed amid Protestant-Sinn Fein infighting over an IRA spying scandal inside government circles.
Since then, Democratic Unionist chief Ian Paisley has soared in Protestant popularity on a stubborn platform vowing never to cooperate with Sinn Fein unless the IRA disbands and Sinn Fein accepts British law and order.
Incredibly, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams - who is ambitious to gain power in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic as part of his aim to promote unification of the island - has come close to delivering Paisley's demands.
The IRA renounced violence and surrendered its weapons stockpiles in 2005. International experts last year said the outlawed group had stopped recruiting and training members, and disbanded units responsible for military planning, such as smuggling and designing weapons.
In the most politically significant move, Adams last month rallied overwhelming support from Sinn Fein's grass-roots members for a mammoth policy U-turn - to begin cooperating with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The only official opinion poll during the four-week campaign put the Democratic Unionists on 24.9 percent support, Sinn Fein on 21.7 percent, the SDLP on 20.2 percent, and the Ulster Unionists on 15.7 percent. Several other parties and independent candidates accounted for the rest.
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