Where did it all go wrong? This Friday is election day in Ireland and as the national vote approaches that is the question Fine Gael and Labour, the two parties who make up the present coalition government, are asking themselves.
The narrative they have presented during the three weeks of the campaign has failed to convince voters. With the slogan "keep the recovery going," they argued that they saved the country from financial ruin and that they offer the only government with proven ability to continue the job of rebuilding the economy.
They may have felt going into the campaign that their record in engineering and managing the recovery meant that they deserved to be re-elected.
They may have felt that the Irish people, a fair-minded electorate, would recognize that and reward them for what they have achieved. To copper fasten their case they repeatedly reminded people that it was Fianna Fail who had wrecked the economy and might do so again if they got back into power.
Fianna Fail, they said, could not be trusted and Sinn Fein, with its murky past and its far left policies, was just not acceptable.
To complete their election message they offered hope of better times to come, promising billions in tax cuts and extra spending based on the growth in the Irish economy that is predicted for the next few years. But that would only be possible if they were re-elected so they could "keep the recovery going."
Three weeks ago this must have seemed like an open and shut case. The alternatives were too risky and too scary and the voters would see that, they thought.
Fine Gael and Labour believed that despite all the pain of the austerity cutbacks and tax hikes over the past few years, people would not be willing to take a chance and put the recovery at risk.
That was the platform and the strategy. It may have seemed convincing. But it hasn't worked.
Three opinion polls last weekend confirmed what we pointed out in this column a week ago. Fine Gael and Labour have no hope of getting enough seats in the Dail to get back into power on their own. Together they are unlikely to get much more than 60 seats, a long way off the 79 seats they need to retain power or the 80-plus seats they would need to form a stable government.
Depending on how the vote goes for them, they would need the support of somewhere between 15 and 20 independents and members of small parties to cling to power. Either that or they would have to include Sinn Fein, predicted to get 25-26 seats, something they have absolutely ruled out.
The other possibility is that Fine Gael by itself, predicted to get 50-55 seats, would form a coalition with Fianna Fail, predicted to get 38-40 seats, an outcome that would have great historic significance since it would finally bring to an end the Civil War divide in Irish politics.
But both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have ruled that out, and certainly it would be dangerous for Fianna Fail which could end up being cannibalized by Fine Gael and eventually being subsumed into the bigger party.
The only other possible alternative, if both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein do much better than expected, is that together they might be able to form a coalition with a dozen or more independents. But that is extremely unlikely, not only because of the numbers but because very few independents would be willing to work with Sinn Fein.
So the outcome of the election, as this column predicted last week, is that we are headed for a stalemate. If the two biggest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, refuse to work together -- and there will be huge pressure on them to do so -- we will be into a very uncertain period. Whatever government is cobbled together is likely to be unstable and we could be in for another election before the end of the year.
So, as we asked at the beginning, where did it all go wrong? Why are voters showing such little gratitude to the government which has set the country on the road to recovery?
The answer lies in the assumption implicit in the "keep the recovery going" slogan. It assumes that everyone here is feeling better off, that the recovery has reached everyone.
The reality is -- and the weekend opinion polls specifically asked the question -- that the majority of people have yet to feel any improvement in their daily lives and standard of living. And being told repeatedly about the need to "keep the recovery going" just annoys them.
It's not that the recovery is bogus. Unemployment is down from a high of 15 percent a few years ago to eight percent now, and almost every week there are announcements of more jobs being created, mainly by multinational companies here. Economic growth is expected to average around 3.5 percent a year for the next few years.
There were some slight reductions in income taxes in the last budget and some minor improvements in welfare payments. There is also a palpable sense in Dublin that confidence is returning and the economy is on the move again, even in construction -- the cranes are back on the city skyline.
But the recovery has just begun and the trickle down effect has yet to reach poorer areas around the capital and most places around the country. There is also intense anger out there on all the new taxes and charges that have impacted on people, including struggling middle class families.
Property tax, water charges, levies on private pension funds, levies on insurance policies, charges for state services that used to be free -- there is a long list of measures taken by the state after the crash that squeeze money out of people, leaving them with little at the end of every month.
On top of that we have some of the highest energy charges in Europe and mortgage interest rates that are twice as high as the EU average. And the cost of private health insurance -- to avoid the A&E chaos and waiting lists in public hospitals -- has soared.
The additional emergency income tax (called USC) introduced after the crash has also hit people hard, and although there was a slight reduction in the rate recently and the government parties are promising to phase it out over the next five years, it is still a sore point.
All together, these things mean that many families have nothing left over when they pay their bills, particularly the vast majority of people who have had little or no pay increase in the last few years. To them, the much hyped "recovery" is a mirage that has yet to solidify into anything real.
And people still feel crucified by income tax. Although economists produce figures showing that we are paying more or less what is the average across Europe, the problem here is that the top rate of tax kicks in at a very low income level.
This means that many workers end up paying income tax at around 50 percent on anything they earn over €50,000. That might be bearable if people felt they were getting a high level of state services for free, but the opposite is the case.
Other issues have also made it difficult for the government parties. The new Irish Water utility and the accompanying charges have been a disaster. The housing shortage caused by the collapse of the construction sector is another serious problem, and the emotive reports on TV of families who can't get social housing have played into the narrative of an uncaring government, something that has been particularly damaging to the Labour Party. In the weekend polls, Labour was down to an average six percent, a level that would see them almost wiped out.
And there has been the nationwide crime problem, with the notorious AK47 attack at a Dublin hotel a couple of weeks ago a shocking reminder of how fearless the drug gangs here are. In any other country, the minister for justice and the garda (police) commissioner would have resigned over that but they are still there, a visible reminder of incompetence at the highest level.
The handling of gangland murders and of the roaming bands of thugs who terrorize rural communities as country police stations were closed to save money have made people here very angry.
So overall from the government's point of view this has been a difficult election to fight, despite the nascent recovery. Added to that is the feeling among voters that Fianna Fail might handle the recovery just as well and that there is little difference between the promises of tax cuts and extra spending being made by all the parties.
Another point of interest in the weekend polls has been the sudden decline in support for Sinn Fein, which was predicted in this column last week. In particular Gerry Adams' car crash interview on radio last week in which he got the marginal rate of tax hopelessly wrong -- indicating how little he knows about economics and about how much tax ordinary people pay -- was a disaster for them. Sinn Fein will still eat up Labour votes in deprived areas, but they have blown any chance of building a middle class vote.
The polls also show that support for independents, including the small new parties on the left and the right, has stayed solid despite what all the experts predicted. There had been an expectation that these voters would go back to the main parties when crunch time arrived, but that is not happening. And this will add to the unpredictability and instability ahead.
It is just possible that the government parties may recover somewhat in the final few days of the campaign as voters park their anger and seriously consider who is best suited to run the country in the years ahead. But it seems unlikely.
This Friday, all the chickens come home to roost.