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Embattled Irish leader forced to call early vote

Ireland's deeply unpopular prime minister suffered another blow Sunday as the small but pivotal Green Party withdrew from his coalition government, forcing a national election to be held next month rather than March and raising pressure on the premier to quit.

Brian Cowen is widely blamed for Ireland's stunning slide to the brink of bankruptcy. His Fianna Fail party, which has won the most seats in parliament in every election since 1932, is expected this time to suffer a crushing defeat.

The Greens hold just six seats, but losing them cost the ruling coalition its parliamentary majority. Their withdrawal means Cowen will be forced to dissolve parliament and call an election within days, nullifying the March 11 election date Cowen had announced last week. Analysts said a new election date, most likely in the second half of February, would be pinpointed this week.

Cowen ruled out resigning as prime minister before the passage of one last essential deficit-fighting measure: legislation that will broadly raise income taxes as part of Ireland's international bailout.

"It's important that we get the Finance Bill through, and we need a government to do that," said Cowen, who did resign Saturday as leader of Fianna Fail.

Ireland's government has been heading for collapse since November, when Cowen was forced to negotiate a $91 billion loan agreement with the European Union and International Monetary Fund to prevent national bankruptcy.

The collapse reflects a wider debt crisis in Europe: Greece required a bailout before Ireland did, many analysts predict Portugal will be next and several other nations that use the euro are adopting austerity measures.

The Greens announced at that time they would leave the government, sinking it, as soon as all legislation linked to the bailout was passed. They and opposition parties have grown frustrated at Cowen's slow rollout of the Finance Bill, which will aggressively raise income taxes to combat Ireland's Europe-leading deficit. It was published Friday afternoon, whereas other bailout-linked bills were passed rapidly more than a month ago.

"Our patience has reached an end," said Green leader John Gormley, who called on Fianna Fail to agree to accelerate passage of the Finance Bill as the government's dying act.

"The Irish people want to see political certainty, economic certainty, and they do want an election," said Gormley, whose environmentalist party joined the Irish government in 2007.

The two major opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, are threatening to force a no-confidence vote in parliament this week against Cowen. Labour said it had no intention of backing down unless Cowen commits to dissolving the parliament for an election by Friday.

"Fianna Fail will have to stop procrastinating and say: It's over. We don't want another weekend of this uncertainty," Labour lawmaker Pat Rabbitte said. "We need to let battle be joined, let the people decide, and let a government that has the prospect of four or five years in office be elected."

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