|Cowen's announcement followed a week of crises that brought his government to the brink of collapse [Reuters]
Brian Cowen, Ireland's prime minister, has resigned as leader of the country's ruling Fianna Fail party, but has vowed to stay on as premier until elections in March.
Cowen made the announcement on Saturday in Dublin, following a week of political crises that brought his coalition government to the edge of collapse.
"Taking everything into account, and having discussed the matter with my family, I have decided on my own counsel to step down as uachtarain [president] of Fianna Fail and leader of Fianna Fail," he said.
"My decision will allow the Fianna Fail parliamentary party to elect a new leader to contest the general election and ensure the party fights that campaign in a united and determined manner, free from internal distractions."
The decision came two days after Cowen announced a general election for March 11, following a string of resignations by ministers that sparked protests from his coalition partners.
Cowen set the date on Thursday after suffering a humiliating climbdown in his plans to replace five ministers who had resigned from his cabinet with new politicians from his party.
The prime minister, who won a confidence vote over his party leadership on Tuesday, did accept the resignations of his ministers overseeing justice, health, trade and enterprise, defence and transport.
But he was forced to transfer responsibility to other existing members of his cabinet rather than to newly promoted politicians, thus avoiding the need for a parliamentary vote.
Coalition partners, who normally support his government, refused to back the reshuffle, putting his government on the brink of collapse and prompting Cowen to announce the election date.
Crippled by debt
Fianna Fail party is expected to receive a hammering in the election from voters angry at its handling of the economic crisis that left the country crippled by debt-ridden banks, and forced it to call in international loans.
Cowen has said that outstanding budget laws, which are key to an $114bn bailout package agreed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, will be passed before the election date.
Deaglan De Breadun, a political correspondent for the Irish Times, said Cowen had made several political mistakes.
"Although he has taken some very harsh decision on the economy which have won him high praise internationally, they have not been very popular with the public at large," he said.
Cowen agreed in November to hold an election after the budget laws were passed, following pressure from the Green Party, which props up Fianna Fail in the coalition government.
His announcement of a date follows further pressure from the Greens.
They were angered by the resignations of the cabinet ministers, claiming it was an attempt by Cowen to force a reshuffle and promote some of his party's up-and-coming stars so they can raise their profile ahead of the vote.