Four-way fight after Irish PM quits as party leader

Four candidates launched a battle to lead Ireland`s governing party after troubled PM quit post.

Dublin: Four candidates
on Sunday launched a battle to lead Ireland`s governing party
after troubled Prime Minister Brian Cowen`s quit the post
after a series of crises forced him to announce snap polls.

Micheal Martin, the foreign minister whose departure
crippled Cowen`s authority, is the odds-on favourite to win
the contest and take the Fianna Fall party into a general
election which polls predict they will lose heavily.

He is up against Finance Minister Brian Lenihan,
Defence Minister Eamon O Cuiv and Trade Minister Mary Hanafin,
who also wasted no time in declaring their candidature before
the 1:00pm (1300 GMT) Monday deadline.

Cowen stepped down yesterday after a week of political

Despite surviving a confidence vote among his party`s
lawmakers on Tuesday, his authority had evaporated and was
further damaged by a botched cabinet reshuffle that followed.

The premier said he had quit so that Fianna Fail could
be "free from internal distractions" to fight the election
slated for March 11.

He said he was nonetheless staying on as prime
minister to focus on getting key budget laws passed to cement
an EU-IMF bailout to revive Ireland`s battered economy.

However, Cowen`s government faces a confidence motion
in parliament on Tuesday and the independent lawmakers on whom
his coalition relies for a thin majority are threatening to
turn against him too.

That would trigger the dissolution of parliament and
an election even earlier than the March 11 date he announced
last week.