DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen defied calls to resign as head of the ruling Fianna Fail party on Sunday and instead offered colleagues the chance to vote on his leadership in a secret ballot this week.
His Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said he would not support Cowen in the Tuesday poll in a last-ditch effort to force him out before an election that is expected to go badly wrong for Fianna Fail.
Analysts said Cowen, who knew Martin would go public with his dissent, likely had enough support within the parliamentary party to secure his tenure until the election, which is expected to take place in March.
“At this point it looks like Mr. Cowen probably has the numbers,” said Theresa Reidy, college lecturer in government at University College Cork. “He would be unlikely to take the stance that he did this evening unless he was relatively confident.”
Tainted by criticism he failed to put the brakes on a disastrous property bubble during a previous stint as finance minister, Cowen’s days as prime minister have been numbered since he was forced to seek an 85 billion euro bailout from the EU and the IMF late last year.
He has faced calls to step aside following new revelations about his cozy ties with disgraced former bankers, which revived allegations that Fianna Fail was too close to the people who helped precipitate Ireland’s financial meltdown.
The political turmoil was expected to have little market impact, given that it does not alter the expectation that a coalition government of the center-right Fine Gael party and the center-left Labor party will take over in a matter of weeks.
“For those familiar with the Irish situation there is little enough new or little enough that will change the outlook,” said Eoin Fahy, chief economist at Kleinwort Benson Investors.
Opinion polls suggest the Fianna Fail party could lose half of its 74 seats in parliament in the looming election, ending its decades-long dominance of Irish politics and consigning it to the opposition benches for years.
“I have reluctantly concluded that, in these circumstances, Fianna Fail should change its leader before the election and I have informed the Taoiseach (prime minister) of this view,” Martin told a hastily arranged news conference.
“The very survival of the party is at stake.”
Martin, the favorite to replace Cowen in the event of a leadership challenge, said he had offered to resign as foreign minister but Cowen said that wouldn’t be necessary.
Analysts said Martin’s public betrayal was more about securing his own re-election and positioning himself for when Cowen resigns as leader — widely expected after the election.
“Martin must know that his odds are getting worse by the day so anything he can do at this late stage to try and separate himself from the pack can only make things better for him,” said David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin.
Under pressure from the Green Party, his junior coalition partners, Cowen pledged last year to set an election date after a final bill on his government’s tough 2011 austerity budget is approved by parliament next month.
“If he were to walk down the street he’d be booed and hissed,” said Tom Flynn, an unemployed maintenance technician.
“If the feeling on the ground is that he should leave, then he should go. Unless he can turn lead into gold.”
Editing by Jon Boyle