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Irish premier Brian Cowen quits as party leader

In an unusual and surprise step, embattled Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has stepped down as head of his Fianna Fail party. He will remain leader of the country ahead of elections in March.

Brian Cowen

Cowen wants to focus on passing budget laws

Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen announced Saturday he was stepping down as head of his Fianna Fail party but would remain as leader of the country ahead of elections in March.

"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 reporters in Dublin.

Cowen's decision to split the role of party leader and prime minister is highly unusual and crowns a week of high drama in which a botched attempt to reshuffle his cabinet nearly brought down the government and forced him to call an early election.

He had planned to replace five Fianna Fail ministers and one independent minister who had resigned with rising stars in his party to help boost their chances in the vote, but the move was vetoed by the Green Party.

Focusing on the task at hand

Michael Martin

Martin is the favorite in the leadership contest

Cowen said his decision would allow Fianna Fail to fight the election "free from internal distractions" and allow him to focus on getting budget laws passed to secure an EU-IMF bailout.

He said he would now focus on passing the finance act, which includes a series of measures crucial to securing the 67-billion-euro ($90 billion) bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Fianna Fail's leadership contest will be held next week and Cowen said he would give the victor his full support.

Former Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, who resigned this week after failing to unseat Cowen when the party held a secret ballot on his leadership, is the favorite to replace him.

However, Fianna Fail and its Green Party coalition partners are facing a motion of no confidence lodged by the Labour Party, which is due to take place on Tuesday when parliament next sits.

Enda Kenny, leader of the main Fine Gael opposition party, said earlier on Saturday that his party would be supporting the motion to oust the government, which has been strongly criticized for its handling of the economic crisis.

"When the motion is moved next week we will vote against the government. I want them out," Kenny told reporters.

A bleak outlook

Cowen said he expected the government to defeat the motion of no confidence tabled by the opposition.

"The parliamentary majority in the house will be tested of course by a confidence motion on Wednesday evening. I believe that we will win that vote," he said.

Fianna Fail is expected to receive a hammering in the March 11 election from voters angry at its handling of the economic crisis that left Ireland crippled by debt-ridden banks, and forced it to call in international loans.

Anglo Irish Bank sign on a building

Cowen's relationship with the former head of Anglo Irish Bank has damaged his reputation

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.

Cowen was finance minister during the last of the country's Celtic Tiger boom years, before becoming prime minister in 2008, just as the economic tide began to turn.

His position was seriously weakened by revelations that he played golf in July 2008 with the former Anglo Irish Bank boss Sean Fitzpatrick, who has been the subject of a police investigation.

The golf game took place just a couple of months before a controversial blanket guarantee of all deposits in Irish banks was issued in September 2008.

The cost of the Anglo Irish Bank bailout is estimated at 35 billion euros.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg (AFP, Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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