Ahern was elected leader of Fianna Fail in November 1994, when a scandal in the government forced Albert Reynolds to resign. Though Reynolds left office, his party's coalition government continued to hold a majority in the Dail, and Ahern, as party leader, was set to assume the office of prime minister. However, the scandal left the coalition divided. Reynold's major partner in the government, Dick Spring of the Labour party, withdrew his support from Fianna Fail and threw it behind John Bruton and the Fine Gael Party, who then formed the new government. Since Bruton came to power more than two years after the most recent election, he was forced to call another one in 1997. This not only gave Bruton a short tenure in office before having to face the voters, it also gave Ahern a relatively quick chance to face Bruton head-on in an election.
In the 6 June 1997 vote, no party won an outright majority of at least 84 seats in the Dail. Fianna Fail won 77, and its coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, won only four. This left Ahern still a few seats short of a majority, but well ahead of the opposition's Rainbow Coalition of Fine Gael, Labour, and the Democratic Left, who combined for only 75 seats. However, it took Ahern the better part of a month to bring together a parliamentary majority. On 26 June 1997, Bertie Ahern was finally elected by a vote of 85 to 78, becoming the youngest prime minister in the history of the Irish Republic.
The coalition of Fianna Fail and Progressive Democrats was dogged by political controversy in 1998 and 1999. Two tribunals established to examine allegations of financial impropriety exonerated the current leadership. But Charles Haughey, a former prime minister and close ally of Ahern, was convicted of taking bribes for personal use and misusing party funds.
An important development at the time of the election was the merger of the Labour party and the Democratic Left. The new party is called the Labour Party and is more likely to provide a genuine center-left alternative to the governing coalition.