'Lame-duck' PM loses support but drafts new budget

By David McKittrick

DUBLIN - Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen was clinging to power in Dublin on a temporary basis yesterday as Ireland adjusted to this week's huge changes to its political and economic landscapes.

The next phase in a fast-moving political scene was to come with today's publication of a government blueprint to cut €15 billion ($26 billion) over the next four years. The plan was yesterday finalised by the Irish Cabinet.

It is assumed to have the broad approval of the team from the EU, ECB and the IMF officials, which were drafted into Dublin last week in a financial rescue operation that deepened Ireland's already long-running political crisis.

It is also thought that the package will not be completely rejected by Ireland's major political parties, which have accepted that radical steps are needed to reduce the country's very large deficit.

Tuesday's fevered political activity, during which the embattled Cowen was obliged to promise a general election in the new year, was followed by a day of intensive calculations within the political parties.

His timetable is to win acceptance for the blueprint and then to pass a budget containing €6 billion worth of cuts on December 7.

He may be able to do so, though success will depend on a complex interplay of political considerations.

Yesterday the message from the IMF and others was that speed and stability are highly desirable, but Cowen is now regarded as a lame-duck premier who is described by some as a mere caretaker Prime Minister.

Several members of his Fianna Fail Party have said he should resign, but yesterday most of his backbenchers seemed to agree that he should stay on until after the budget.

The markets were clearly unimpressed at his chances, registering declines, though Ladbrokes bookmakers took a more optimistic view.

Their odds suggested that although they regard Cowen personally as a beaten docket, they believe he can get his austerity plan and budget through before his departure from power.

The parliamentary arithmetic in the Dail is complex, with five parties and 10 independent members.

Fianna Fail is the largest party, governing with the support of the Greens and some of the 10 independents.

The Greens have announced that they will be leaving the Government, though not before supporting the four-year plan and the budget.

Two of the independents who usually vote for Cowen have declared they are highly unlikely to vote for the budget, while the stance of some others is obscure.

The Republic's second-largest party, Fine Gael, could theoretically set out to block both the plan and the budget, but it is bound to be influenced by a distinct national mood which is emerging across Ireland.

The sense seems to be that the plan and the budget should go through, even though they will inevitably bring considerable financial pain.

- Independent

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