Dublin: Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen`s surprise plan to reshuffle his cabinet weeks before a general election risked backfiring badly on Thursday with coalition partners and backbenchers fuming over the move.
Cowen`s manoueuvre, amid a ministerial exodus, revives the possibility he will be forced to call an election sooner than planned, and only days after he emerged victorious in a secret ballot on his party leadership.
National broadcaster RTE reported that Enterprise Minister Batt O`Keefe was set to become the sixth minister from the ruling Fianna Fail party to resign from the cabinet, part of a mass departure that led opposition parties to ask who was running the country.
An uncomfortable-looking duty prime minister was forced to suspend parliament until 1330 GMT after opposition parties demanded that Cowen, who does not usually take questions from deputies on Thursdays, come to parliament to explain himself.
Cowen, who won a secret ballot on his leadership of Fianna Fail on Tuesday, wanted to use the vacancies to carry out a pre-election cabinet reshuffle, but at least one party colleague and junior partners The Greens threatened not to support such a move, raising the possibility that the government could fall.
Fianna Fail lawmaker Noel O`Flynn called for an immediate election, telling RTE "This is not going to wash with the public, judging by the phone calls I`m receiving this morning."
Green Party chairman Dan Boyle said the party would have to consider its position in the parliamentary vote allowing Cowen to make the new appointments unless he made a statement that a parliamentary election would take place no later than March.
The prime minister has promised to call an election in the first quarter of the year, meaning the polling date could slip into April as the election must be held between 18 and 25 days, excluding Sundays and public holidays, after being called.
Cowen could avoid putting a cabinet reshuffle to a vote by asking some ministers to double up on portfolios, something he did on Wednesday by taking on the foreign affairs portfolio.
But the Greens parliamentary party called an impromptu meeting, and one Green Party MP said some of his colleagues shared his "huge concerns" over the Cowen`s plan.
"This does have the overtone of a collapsing government, a strong sense that nobody`s in control any more and that`s been building since the IMF bailout," political lecturer Theresa Reidy of University College Cork said.
They should all be gone
The series of resignations began late on Tuesday when Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, who challenged Cowen in the confidence vote, resigned from his post.
Health Minister Mary Harney then stepped down late on Wednesday, citing her intention not to run in the election. That prompted the three other ministers not seeking re-election -- Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey and Defense Minister Tony Kileen -- to give up their portfolios.
Dempsey, who announced he would not contest the election in December, told RTE that Cowen had indicated to him a few weeks ago that he was planning a pre-election reshuffle and would take the transport minister up on his offer to resign from cabinet.
Voters, who have been waiting to punish Cowen`s government at the polls, were shocked by his plan.
"They should all be gone. There should be an immediate general election. Everyone is sick of it. Fianna Fail need to be punished and the Greens need to be punished for supporting Fianna Fail," said Gerard Williams, a 43-year-old postal service worker.