LONDON — Ireland’s political turmoil deepened on Sunday when the Green party abandoned the governing coalition with the Fianna Fail party of Prime Minister Brian Cowen, raising fresh doubts about Mr. Cowen’s ability to cling to office and prompting new questions about Ireland’s commitments under the $114 billion bailout plan for its economy negotiated with international lenders.
The Greens’ defection came less than 24 hours after Mr. Cowen agreed to step down as the Fianna Fail leader but vowed to stay on as prime minister until after an election, a face-saving compromise that was widely derided across Ireland, and backed by only a narrowing circle of Cowen loyalists within Fianna Fail. The Greens’ leader, John Gormley, said Mr. Cowen’s flurry of moves to keep himself in office had ruptured the “trust” on which the coalition rested.
“Our patience has reached an end,” Mr. Gormley said.
The loss of the six Green votes in the 166-seat lower house of the Irish Parliament left the Cowen government without a majority. It also put the government at high risk of being voted out of office this week before securing passage of legislation to authorize steep tax increases and spending cuts required by the International Monetary Fund and the European central bank as part of the bailout plan.
Much now depends on a no-confidence motion that the opposition Labour party has set for a parliamentary vote by mid-week, one the Cowen government would be at risk of losing. Labour has said that it will withdraw the motion only if Mr. Cowen moves to dissolve the lower house by Friday, precipitating a general election by late February or early March, about two weeks earlier than the March 11 date previously set by Mr. Cowen.
Recent polls have pointed to a crushing defeat in the election for Fianna Fail, and the probability of a new governing coalition between the Labour and Fine Gael parties, left-of-center parties that are both now in opposition.
Mr. Cowen has said that the Friday deadline set by Labour will be impossible to meet if the finance bill is to be passed. Without the bill’s passage, the measures that it would authorize could not be approved until a new government took office and returned to Parliament with a bill of its own, probably not before the spring. The measures, which are deeply unpopular, include cuts in pensions and the minimum wage as part of a $25 billion, four-year austerity package.
The austerity measures would also be thrust into the election debate, with the possibility that a new government might seek to reopen talks with international lenders to change some of the measures approved by the Cowen cabinet. With nearly two months having passed already without parliamentary backing for the measures, financial experts have warned that further delays could unsettle international financial markets, causing fresh uncertainties for other European countries with economies threatened by crushing debt.
After less than three years in office, Mr. Cowen, 51, appears to be facing heavy odds in achieving the “civilized” political transition he invoked when he announced his plan to quit as the Fianna Fail leader on Saturday. His quixotic style of leadership has exhausted even his own close supporters: insisting last fall that Ireland needed no bailout, until the moment he began negotiations for one; trying to rebuild his government last week without consulting the Greens, only to have them reject his proposals; and finally, on Saturday, bowing to widespread demands that he quit, but insisting on remaining prime minister until after the election.
Irish political commentators have swarmed to condemn Mr. Cowen. A columnist in the Sunday editions of The Irish Times, Noel Whelan, was characteristically harsh, predicting that Fianna Fail could be virtually wiped out in the election, with much of the blame going to Mr. Cowen and the “farcical political events” of recent weeks, which had drawn a public response of “bemusement, but then of fury.”
Mr. Cowen, he said, “has no access to, nor ear for, strategic political advice. He has no interest in, nor feel for, the media. He has no respect for, or belief in, polling data. He is indifferent to the need for delicate party and coalition management.” As a result, Mr. Whelan said, Fianna Fail, Ireland’s dominant political party for decades, was now poised on “the brink of oblivion.”