BELFAST, March 2 (Xinhua) -- Nearly 700,000 voters are expected to elect a new Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly on Thursday to replace the one that collapsed in January amid a political crisis.
Polling stations across Northern Ireland opened at 7 a.m. (0700 GMT) and will close at 10 p.m. (2200 GMT). Final results are expected in one or two days. A total of 90 members of the assembly will be elected in 18 constituencies.
The election came nearly two months after the shock resignation of Martin McGuinness of the Sinn Fein party as the deputy leader of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government. He quit in a major rift with then First Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). McGuinness' resignation led to the collapse of the assembly.
With McGuinness' departure, Foster had to also step down under power-sharing rules.
The snap elections are held only 10 months after the last assembly elections.
McGuinness stepped down in a bitter row with Foster over a controversial renewable heating scheme. He claimed taxpayers could face paying a bill running into hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.
Power sharing in the Northern Ireland assembly came as part of a peace process that followed decades of conflict over the status of the area.
Experts have said the results of the election will affect the stability of Northern Ireland. Earlier opinion polls have shown that the DUP and Sinn Fein are expected to lead in the elections. But analysts warned that there seems to be little likelihood that the outcome will soften the current rigidity between the two sides, and that a renewed stand-off might in turn trigger renewed direct rule from London.
In Northern Ireland, the government must be run by Irish nationalists and unionists together. The system was set up by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 after years of conflict.