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Ireland’s Prime Minister Stepped Down. So What Happens Now?

The leader of the Republic of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, resigned on Wednesday, prompting a political scramble in the government after his announcement in front of the parliament building in Dublin.

Mr. Varadkar’s decision, which he attributed to both “personal and political” reasons, was unexpected, with some members of his government given only a few hours notice of his plans.

A medical doctor and former health minister, Mr. Varadkar first became taoiseach, or prime minister, in 2017, at a time when his Fine Gael party was still one of the country’s two dominant parties, a position it had enjoyed nearly uninterrupted since the founding of the Irish state.

During his years in office, though, public opinion has shifted, and as Fine Gael’s popularity dipped, his departure seemed inevitable, experts said. Now, as Ireland grapples with what comes next for its government, here’s what to know.

Despite calls from the opposition for a general election, Mr. Varadkar’s resignation does not mean an end to the current government.

Fine Gael, a center-right party, currently governs in coalition with two other parties, Fianna Fáil, its longtime rival, and the Green Party. Under the terms of their power-sharing arrangement, it is up to Fine Gael to appoint a new leader, who will then become the prime minister.

Because of the surprise nature of Mr. Varadkar’s announcement, there was no immediate successor waiting in the wings, leading to an initial rush of speculation about who might fill his position.

By Thursday afternoon, though, it appeared that Simon Harris, the minister for education, might be vying for the role uncontested. For years he has spoken of his desire to one day lead the party and he was nominated for the role on Thursday. Mr. Harris, who is 37, would become the youngest ever taoiseach if he does become the party’s leader, edging out Mr. Varadkar who initially took up the leadership role at 38. So far, it appears that other members of the party are rallying around him.

Other potential contenders included party stalwarts like Paschal Donohoe, the minister for public expenditure and reform, and Heather Humphreys, the minister for social protection. Both are longtime Fine Gael lawmakers, but in the past 24 hours both have said they had no intention of putting themselves forward.

In his resignation speech, Mr. Varadkar laid out an aspirational timeline for Fine Gael to appoint a new leader, saying that he wanted a successor to be elected before the party’s annual conference on April 6. That person would then become prime minister when parliament resumes on April 9, after an Easter break.

The process to get there, though, could become complicated if more than one lawmaker contests the election.

One reason for the urgency to choose a new leader is that Ireland will hold local and European elections in June.

In addition, Ireland’s Dáil, the country’s popularly elected lower house of Parliament, has a maximum term of five years, so a national election must be held before March 22, 2025. That means that whoever replaces Mr. Varadkar will serve as taoiseach for less than a year before an election is called.

Mr. Varadkar, the young, gay son of an Irish mother and an Indian father, once seemed like an emblem of a new, more energetic and inclusive Ireland. Now, he is the face of an increasingly unpopular establishment.

His resignation follows years of waning support for the long-dominant parties, Fine Gael, which dropped to the third most popular in the country’s last general election in 2020, and Fianna Fail. It crystallizes the perception that Irish politics is in a moment of flux and uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin, once the political branch of the I.R.A., rose from its position as a fringe player to win the most votes in the last election. No party came close to a majority, forcing the formation of a coalition.

All of the major parties are fighting political headwinds, as Ireland faces a number of domestic challenges. A severe housing shortage — caused partly by the failure of successive governments to invest in affordable housing — and a cost-of-living crisis have created widespread frustration with the political establishment.

With the number of asylum seekers arriving in the country rising sharply, the government has had to contend with an anti-immigration backlash driven in part by far-right rhetoric online. That has increasingly spilled over into violence, with arsonists targeting planned housing for asylum seekers, and a violent riot in Dublin late last year that drew international attention.

Concerns about immigration seem to be benefiting independent candidates. Even Sinn Féin, still the most popular party in the polls, has seen its support fall. And with a general election on the horizon, the country’s leading politicians must now grapple with how to address a deeply divisive issue, without inflaming it further.

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