DUBLIN — Prime Minister Brian Cowen faced a fight for political survival yesterday as he rebuffed pressure to resign and a senior Cabinet colleague announced he would challenge him for the party leadership.
Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said he had “reluctantly concluded’’ that Cowen would have to be forced from office since he refused to go voluntarily. The two face a showdown tomorrow when lawmakers of the long-ruling Fianna Fail party gather to vote on whether to keep Cowen or promote Martin.
Cowen has faced intense criticism over his management of Ireland’s European-record deficit and its international bailout.
His declaration that he would not resign follows several days of talks with lawmakers in his Fianna Fail party. Many wanted him to quit immediately so that a new leader can take the party into a spring election that, under Cowen’s leadership, it is widely expected to lose.
But in a trademark defiant performance, Cowen said he instead would mount a motion of confidence in his own leadership at tomorrow’s meeting. He said he wasn’t willing to wait indefinitely for one or more of his Cabinet colleagues to mount a direct challenge to oust him.
Cowen said he was confident of winning the secret-ballot vote and leading Fianna Fail to a seventh straight election victory. Fianna Fail has governed Ireland almost continuously since 1987, but has plummeted to historic lows in recent opinion polls.
Cowen’s determination to stay leaves unsettled the question of whether his government will survive long enough to pass the emergency deficit-slashing legislation required by the $90 billion bailout from the EU and International Monetary Fund.
Fianna Fail rivals could quickly pursue a no-confidence motion to try to oust him. Among those who have publicly voiced a desire to replace Cowen are Martin, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, and Arts and Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin.
Opposition leaders planned to press ahead with their own no-confidence motion in Parliament against Cowen — and pleaded for Fianna Fail to declare an election date.
“The longer [the Irish government] stays in power, the greater the damage that is being done to the economy and to our international reputation. This government should go,’’ said Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party.
Cowen rose to power in June 2008 as Ireland’s 13-year Celtic Tiger economic boom was giving way to a property-market implosion and banking crisis. He has faced rising accusations of making decisions that benefited corrupt bankers far more than taxpayers, who have been burdened with a bank-rescue bill expected to top $65 billion.