Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen called elections in seven weeks as his government crumbled and he fought off calls to resign.
Cowen set March 11 as polling day after his coalition partners in the Green Party rejected a cabinet reshuffle, after a failed mutiny by Foreign Minister Micheal Martin ended in his resignation two days ago.
Support for Cowen’s Fianna Fail, which has governed since 1997, has plunged to a record low in the wake of an 85 billion euro ($118 billion) rescue by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Cowen’s health, justice, defense, transport and enterprise ministers, allies of the leader, said they won’t fight the election.
“It’s a shambles,” Enda Kenny, leader of the largest opposition party, Fine Gael, said in an interview with broadcaster RTE. “The last days of a desperate government.”
Backing for Cowen’s party has dropped to 14 percent, according to a poll carried out this month. Fine Gael, has 35 percent support, according to the poll, carried out by Red C for Dublin-based bookmaker Paddy Power Plc. Fianna Fail won 40 percent of the vote in the 2007 election.
The latest crisis unfolded as Cowen moved to appoint replacements for the retiring ministers, which political opponents including Fine Gael said was a “cynical” effort to help the party’s electoral prospects.
A reshuffle would “smack of jobs for the boys and cosmetic surgery for endangered candidates in need of a makeover,” Paul Gogarty, a lawmaker with the Greens, a member of the ruling coalition, said today.
In parliament today, Cowen rejected the claim that he had sought to engage in “any kind of stunts” before the election.
“People are suffering and experiencing immense hardship because of this recession,” Cowen said. “I deeply regret that.”
Since Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern 2 1/2 years ago, unemployment has doubled, the financial system came close to collapse and the government had to seek an international bailout.
The extra yield investors demand to hold Irish 10-year bonds rather than German securities of similar maturity narrowed 9 basis points to 572 points. The benchmark Irish stock index fell 1.2 percent to 2858.72 as of 3:29 p.m. in Dublin.
Cowen had previously said the election will take within three months, without naming a date. Enda Kenny is “red hot favorite” to be the next prime minister, Paddy Power said.
Kenny is 1-16 on to become the next prime minister, meaning a 16 euro stake would return a 1 euro profit, according to the bookmaker.
“You are going to get a campaign that focuses on a lot of the negative. It promises to be a lot of mud throwing,” said Austin Hughes, chief economist with Dublin-based KBC Bank Ireland. “It would seem extraordinary that the current government could be returned.”