DUBLIN – Ireland's election race kicked into first gear Monday as the governing Fianna Fail party unveiled its new leadership team — and Prime Minister Brian Cowen confirmed he won't seek re-election to parliament.
Cowen said he has decided to end his 26-year parliamentary career after battling to save his country from the brink of bankruptcy. His approval ratings have plummeted to record lows after his government in November negotiated an emergency euro67.5 billion ($91 billion) rescue from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Cowen, 51, told his local radio station in Ireland's rural midlands that he could have confidently won re-election. But he said the time was right to retire from politics "having held the highest office in the land, and after coming through the most difficult stage that this state has faced for the last 80 years."
Earlier the new Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, presented a 21-member team as his choices for the next Cabinet. Martin led an unsuccessful push two weeks ago to oust Cowen, then was elected leader last week after Cowen quit as party leader.
Unusually, Martin's new team of Cabinet aspirants includes three election candidates who have yet to win a parliamentary seat. Martin said this demonstrated his commitment to "new politics."
The moves came one day before Cowen planned to dissolve the parliament and confirm an election date.
Analysts widely expect Cowen to declare Feb. 25 as the election day — and for Martin's Fianna Fail to suffer a defeat of historic proportions. Even before Cowen's announcement, more than 20 of Fianna Fail's current 71 lawmakers have said they won't seek re-election.
A Sunday Business Post poll put support for Fine Gael and Labour — the opposition parties favored to form the next government — at 33 percent and 23 percent respectively. Fianna Fail was third with 16 percent. The poll had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Reflecting the battle for survival that Fianna Fail candidates face, two of Martin's promoted politicians — new deputy leader Mary Hanafin and new health spokesman Barry Andrews — are competing in the same parliamentary district. Analysts expect one, at most, to be elected in the four-seat district.
However, the poll did offer Fianna Fail one surprising boost, because those surveyed said they most liked Martin as a potential prime minister.
Martin, a Cabinet veteran who quit as foreign minister two weeks ago after withdrawing support from Cowen, received 31 percent support. Labour leader Eamon Gilmore received 26 percent, while Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny — considered the figure most likely to become prime minister — merited just 19 percent support.
In Ireland's parliamentary system, the prime minister is the leader of the largest government party and is not chosen directly by voters.
Fianna Fail, which is pronounced "Feen-uh fall" and means "soldiers of destiny" in Gaelic, has won the most parliamentary seats in every election since 1932. Political analysts say the party is on course to lose potentially two-thirds of its seats this time.
Fianna Fail, http://www.fiannafail.ie/
Fine Gael, http://finegael2011.com/