DUBLIN — Human rights activist and poet Michael D. Higgins headed for victory Friday in Ireland's presidential election as the Irish picked a left-wing idealist to be the new face of a debt-struck nation.
Higgins' main challenger, business guru and reality TV celebrity Sean Gallagher, conceded defeat in a telephone call to Higgins. Gallagher said he expected Higgins would be, as his own campaign slogan promised, "a president to be proud of."
Higgins, 70, was mobbed by well-wishers and journalists as he arrived at the Dublin Castle count center. Minutes later, electoral officials announced he had received 39.6 percent of all first-preference votes to take an unassailable lead atop the field of seven candidates.
"I'm very glad that it was so decisive. It will enable me to be a president for all of the people," Higgins said of his commanding share of votes from Thursday's election.
Final results are expected Saturday because of Ireland's complex voting system, which permits voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Several rounds of counting are required to transfer the votes of the least popular candidates to those still in contention. Analysts say this process will inevitably put Higgins above the 50 percent threshold needed to succeed Mary McAleese as Ireland's ceremonial head of state.
Gallagher received 28.5 percent of first-preference votes. Former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness came third with 13.7 percent. Gay Mitchell of the main government party, Fine Gael, came fourth with 6.4 percent, while gay rights activist David Norris finished with 6.2 percent.
"I'm very happy to be an Irishman under the presidency of Michael D. Higgins," said Norris, who was the campaign's initial leader but saw his chances ruined by revelations that he had written letters to Israel seeking clemency for a former partner who had been convicted of raping a 15-year-old Palestinian boy.
Norris lauded Higgins as a political maverick and social liberal who would "speak out on behalf of the marginalized."
Higgins is widely known in Ireland simply as "Michael D," befitting his status as one of the country's most liked and instantly recognized politicians. He stands just 5 foot 4, his elfin features complimented with a much-parodied high voice infused with his rural County Clare roots.
Higgins, a former University College Galway lecturer in sociology and politics, is credited as an intellectual heavyweight of Irish politics with three published collections of poetry to his credit and a four-decade record of promoting homegrown arts, literature, film and the native Gaelic language. Unlike other English-only candidates and most of the nation, Higgins spoke the native Irish tongue fluently on the campaign trail.
He also has traveled the world defending left-wing human rights cases. He is one of Ireland's most ardent critics of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan, and of Israel's policies versus the Palestinians.
His socialism came to the fore on the campaign trail as he condemned the get-rich-quick excesses of Ireland's lost Celtic Tiger boom economy, arguing its narcissism and greed left the country mired in debt and unemployment.
Gallagher, an entrepreneur and the star judge on a business-talent TV competition called "Dragon's Den," last week seemed on course to an unlikely victory as he pledged to lead Ireland back to prosperity.
He had a 15-point lead in opinion polls versus Higgins 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 Fianna Fail. Voters in February expelled Fianna Fail from office after the long-dominant party 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 donation he allegedly collected from a border fuel smuggler. Analysts said that admission linked Gallagher fatally in voters' minds to Fianna Fail's poor ethical record.
Higgins' campaign team seized on their candidate's own reputation for honesty and integrity as a point of contrast. Full-page newspaper ads on election day claimed that the "D" in Higgins' name stood for democracy and decency. It actually stands for Daniel.
A survey published Friday by Irish pollsters RedC said it telephoned 1,100 citizens Thursday after they had cast their ballots and detected 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 in favor of Higgins.