, DUBLIN, Jan 22 – Irish 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 on March 11.
In a surprise move, after a week of political turmoil, Cowen said this 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.
"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.
Despite surviving a confidence vote in his party on Tuesday, Cowen\’s authority was seriously damaged by a botched cabinet reshuffle that caused the ire of his coalition partners and forced him to announce an election date.
He expressed his intention to stay on as premier until the poll, saying: "I will continue in my role as Taoiseach (prime minister) as I have before."
He said he would now focus on passing the finance act, which includes a series of measures crucial to securing the 67 billion euros (90 billion dollars) bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
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 criticised 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.
Speaking at a hastily called press conference, Cowen said: "At this crucial time when decisions and choices have to be made by the people about the future of our country, the focus should be on what policies the political parties are offering rather than on the narrow focus of personality politics.
"I am concerned that renewed internal criticism of my leadership of Fianna Fail is deflecting attention from these important debates."
He added: "My intention now is to concentrate fully on government business and on continuing to implement the recovery plan.
"My decision will allow the Fianna Fail parliamentary party to elect a new leader to contest the general election and ensure the party fights that campaign in a united and determined manner, free from internal distractions."
On Thursday, Cowen called a general election for March 11 as he bowed to pressure after a botched cabinet reshuffle.
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 Greens.
In a day of high drama, Green party leader John Gormley said they "had no idea" all the ministerial resignations were going to take place, and told Cowen that if it went to a vote then his party would not support it.
Cowen was forced to reassign the portfolios of the six resigned ministers to other members of the cabinet in a humiliating climbdown.
Fianna Fail is expected to receive a hammering in the 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.
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.