DUBLIN – Ireland’s embattled Prime Minister Brian Cowen announced Saturday he was stepping down as leader of his Fianna Fail party but would remain as the country’s premier ahead of the March 11 general election.
In a surprise move after a week of political turmoil, Cowen said he wanted the centrist party to fight the election “free from internal distractions” — while he could now focus on getting budget laws passed to cement an EU-IMF bailout to revive Ireland’s battered economy.
“Taking everything into account, and having discussed the matter with my family, I have decided on my own counsel to step down as uachtarain (president) of Fianna Fail and leader of Fianna Fail,” Cowen told a Dublin news conference.
Despite surviving a confidence vote among his party’s lawmakers on Tuesday, Cowen’s authority was seriously damaged by a botched cabinet reshuffle that sparked the anger of his junior coalition partners and forced him to announce an election date.
He expressed his intention to stay on as premier until the poll, saying: “I will continue in my role as Taoiseach (prime minister) as I have before.”
He said he would focus on passing the Finance Bill, which includes a series of measures crucial to securing the 67-billion-euro (90-billion-dollar) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
However, the government of Fianna Fail and its Green Party coalition partners is facing a motion of no confidence lodged by the opposition Labour Party, which could take place on Tuesday when parliament next sits.
Enda Kenny, leader of the Fine Gael main opposition party, said Cowen should have asked President Mary McAleese for a dissolution of parliament.
“This is complete madness. We are now the laughing stock of Europe. We have a leaderless party and a powerless Taoiseach,” he said.
“It’s the ultimate example of putting party before country.”
Cowen has been under pressure for months over his handling of the debt crisis which has brought the Irish economy to its knees and forced it to accept international loans in November.
He survived a confidence vote in his party Tuesday sparked by a leadership challenge from foreign minister Micheal Martin. He subsequently resigned.
But the Taoiseach came unstuck under allegations that he tried to use Martin’s resignation and the seemingly coordinated resignations of five other ministers to promote rising stars in his party to help boost their chances in the elections.
The move went down badly with the Greens, who said they would not support any new reappointments, and Cowen was forced to reassign the six portfolios to existing cabinet members in a humiliating climbdown.
Nominations for the Fianna Fail leadership close at 1:00pm (1300 GMT) on Monday, with the party lawmakers electing the new leader at a special meeting in Dublin on Wednesday.
Martin told reporters he will be a candidate; Finance Minister Brian Lenihan will stand, his spokesperson told state broadcaster RTE, while Defence Minister Eamon O Cuiv will also contest the vote.
Other senior Fianna Fail figures were reportedly canvassing for support.
However, the opposition Labour and Sinn Fein parties called for immediate elections to be called.
“It is simply not tenable for Mr Cowen to remain on as Taoiseach as his colleagues in Fianna Fail squabble over the remnants of their party,” Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said.
Speaking at a hastily convened press conference, Cowen said he was “concerned that renewed internal criticism of my leadership of Fianna Fail is deflecting attention” from the important choices facing Ireland.
“My intention now is to concentrate fully on government business and on continuing to implement the recovery plan,” he added.
Fianna Fail is expected to receive a hammering in the election from voters angry at its handling of the economy.
A Red C poll earlier this month showed public support for Cowen was at 10 percent, while just 14 percent of voters said they would back Fianna Fail.