Thousands protest against austerity ahead of Irish vote

Thousands of protesters marched through Dublin on Saturday to call for an end to austerity, as Ireland prepares to vote in parliamentary elections.

The "Right2Change" demonstration brought together a range of anti-austerity groups under the banner of opposing controversial water charges, which have crystallised anger over a rise in poverty, budget cuts and tax hikes since an economic crisis and bailout in 2010.

National broadcaster RTE estimated up to 20,000 attended the march, which brought central Dublin to a halt as it snaked through the capital before the crowds filled a major thoroughfare to hear speakers address a rally.

"We are fighting to end the austerity that has crippled people in this country. Water was the straw that broke the camel`s back," said June Markham, a retiree from Dublin.

"We might not get the exact government we want this time but, by God, we`re on our way to doing it."

Polls ahead of the election set for February 26 show Ireland may be the latest eurozone country to face political uncertainty as prime minister Enda Kenny and his current coalition government could struggle to form a majority for a second term.

Protesters, who had travelled to Dublin from all around Ireland, carried colourful flags and banners reading "Can`t Pay Won`t Pay" and "Water is a Human Right", and also chanted: "Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out".

Attending the rally were leaders of the left-wing republican party Sinn Fein, which has seen its popularity rise to historic highs in polls as it embraced an anti-austerity stance.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said ahead of the protest that the 100 election candidates from left-wing groups and those standing as independent politicians who have signed up under the "Right2Change" banner represented a "real progressive alternative".

"For the vast majority of families there is no recovery," Adams said in a statement. "Next Friday citizens have a choice between more of the same or... a new government that will ensure working families are given a break."Organisers said the protest was for an Ireland "not based on cronyism, corruption or greed, but instead one based on equality, democracy and social justice".

The water charges issue has galvanised opposition to austerity after the government began charging households for water, rather than financing through general taxation as had been done previously.

John Lyons, a Dublin councillor seeking election with the People Before Profit party, said the charges were "another step on the road to water privatisation".

Lyons told AFP he`s never seen such numbers of people taking to the streets. "We have people feeling their own power, it`s absolutely amazing to see."

Ireland goes to the polls with the current coalition of Fine Gael and Labour seeking a second term on a platform of keeping the economy steady.

The eurozone nation has the highest economic growth rate in the European Union -- 7.0 percent in the first nine months of last year -- but many voters say they are not feeling the benefit and are disillusioned after years of sacrifices and a financial crisis that has discredited Ireland`s elite.