DUBLIN (Reuters) - An attempt by Ireland’s foreign minister to oust unpopular Prime Minister Brian Cowen as the ruling party’s leader has failed to attract support from any cabinet colleagues, the government’s chief whip said on Monday.
Cowen announced on Sunday he would put his leadership of the ruling Fianna Fail party to a secret ballot, after defying calls by members to step down before a general election in which the party is likely to suffer a heavy defeat.
So far Micheal Martin, one of Cowen’s possible successors, is the only cabinet member to say publicly he will “reluctantly” vote against the prime minister as party leader on Tuesday.
“I haven’t heard of any other (cabinet) minister backing Micheal Martin at this time,” chief whip John Curran said.
Cowen’s days as prime minister have been numbered since Ireland had to seek an 85 billion euro EU/IMF bailout last year, and he faced fresh calls to step down after revelations this month about meetings he had held with disgraced bankers.
Under pressure from junior coalition partners, the Green party, Cowen has promised to call an election after a final bill underpinning the tough 2011 austerity budget is approved by parliament next month. Analysts say he will probably have enough support within his parliamentary party to secure his tenure until the election, which is expected to take place in March.
However, financial markets are more concerned about the next government, which is likely to be a coalition between the center-right Fine Gael party and the center-left Labour party.
The premium investors demand to hold Irish debt over German bunds was just 1 basis point higher at 553 basis points on Monday and the main stock index was broadly flat.
Cowen sounded out all 70 members of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party on Friday and Saturday before deciding to call the confidence vote.
Martin, who offered his resignation on Sunday but which Cowen rejected, told state radio on Monday he was aware of some cabinet ministers who shared his view on Cowen stepping down “but it’s for them to make their views known”.
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan and Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin are also possible contenders for the party leadership.
Cowen has been heavily criticised for failing to halt a disastrous property bubble during a previous stint as finance minister, and then generously bailing out banks as premier.
FIANNA FAIL WIPE-OUT
Opinion polls put support for Fianna Fail, which has dominated Irish politics for nearly all of its history as an independent state, at a record low 14 percent.
“The opinion polls come and go and our fortunes go up and down,” Curran told state broadcaster RTE. However, he said Cowen was prepared as prime minister and Fianna Fail leader “for the battle that will ensue which will be the general election”.
Noel O’Flynn, a Cowen critic in Fianna Fail, said he would vote against the confidence motion and support Martin. “We’re looking at the possible wipe-out of the party,” he said.
Junior minister Billy Kelleher from Martin’s county of Cork, also said he would vote against the motion and that he had offered his resignation to Cowen, who refused it.
Bill O’Neill, chief investment officer of Merrill Lynch wealth management (EMEA), said investors were less worried about who leads Fianna Fail. “I think they are much more focused on the color of the next government ... rather than the twists and turns of the leadership debate,” he told reporters.