IRELAND'S government has called a general election for February 25, expecting to see it become the first administration ousted as a result of the eurozone debt crisis.
Prime Minister Brian Cowen and President Mary McAleese today signed the proclamation dissolving parliament, and the election was called to take place two weeks earlier than initially planned.
Mr Cowen will take no part in the campaign, having announced he is bowing out of politics after a bruising term as Taoiseach, or prime minister, in which a debt crisis brought down Ireland's one-time Celtic Tiger economy.
In November, Dublin was forced to agree an 85 billion euros ($116.82 billion)- bailout with the European Union and International Monetary Fund, despite Mr Cowen insisting days before the deal that no emergency aid was needed.
Ireland became the second member of the eurozone after Greece to seek a bailout, and the government has rushed through a package of austerity measures as a pre-condition to receiving the loans.
Opinion polls show that Mr Cowen's Fianna Fail party, which has dominated Irish politics for decades, is heading for its worst-ever electoral defeat as voters look set to punish it for the handling of the economic collapse.
In his farewell speech to parliament, Mr Cowen defended his record and insisted that the exceptional circumstances had forced him to take unpopular but essential decisions for the good of the country.
"While the past two and a half years since I was elected Taoiseach have been a time of great trial and test, I believe we have worked hard to correct past failures and to secure the future recovery of our country," he told politicians.
"I know some of the decisions my government had to take were not popular. But they had to be taken."
He found little comfort from the leaders of Fine Gael and Labour, the two parties which are expected to form the next government.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said Mr Cowen's coalition government had "brought down our country" and "tied our state to the sinking and stinking misfortunes of the banks and sold us out in the deal to the EU and the IMF".
"We are determined to lead a new wave of change, to fix a broken system, a system that has failed the Irish people," Mr Gilmore said.
"Now is the time to pull down the walls that stand between the people and their government. Now is the time for change. Today, February 1, let us leave our winter behind."
The election was originally called for March 11, but was brought forward after the Greens, the junior partners, withdrew from the coalition government last month.
Mr Cowen, 51, was also forced to step down as head of Fianna Fail to be replaced by former foreign minister Micheal Martin.
Recent opinion polls have made grim reading for the party.
A MillwardBrown Lansdowne poll in the Sunday Independent newspaper put Mr Cowen's personal rating at 10 per cent and dissatisfaction with the government at 95 per cent, the highest ever.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has warned the EU he will seek to renegotiate the terms of the bailout if he becomes prime minister.
The upper house of Ireland's parliament voted through a finance bill key to securing the bailout on Sunday, preparing the ground for Mr Cowen to seek a dissolution.
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