Fianna Fail leader Brian Cowen resigned as party leader recently but retained his position as taoiseach (pronounced tee shuck) or prime minister. A similar division of functions occurred in South Africa under the penultimate white-minority government in 1989. South Africa converted from a parliamentary to a presidential system during the late 1970s and early 1980s. State President Pieter Willem Botha, an autocrat who had moved into the executive office from the defense ministry, suffered a stroke in January 1989. While recovering he decided to drop his leadership of the ruling National Party but continue to function as state president. Frederick Willem de Klerk was elected party leader of the National Party by the caucus of MPs. He gradually organized a revolt among the caucus, which had suffered the slights of an imperious autocrat and saw how Botha's brand of apartheid had served to further isolate South Africa over the years since Botha had taken the helm. In August a coup was launched and the caucus forced Botha to resign his position. New elections were held in September, which resulted in the opposition Democratic Party receiving a record number of seats. This influenced the new State President F.W. de Klerk to make his startling announcement in February 1990 that not only was he releasing Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years, but he was also unbanning the African National Congress, the Pan-African Congress, and the South African Communist Party and would shortly enter into talks with them about the future of the country.
With elections tentatively scheduled for March 2011, Cowen's hanging on seems to be more in the order of saving the new party leader--to be elected Wednesday--from the embarrassment of being associated with the present government. Fianna Fail's coalition partner, the Green Party, deserted the government on Sunday.
Since being formed in the spring of 1926 and coming to power in 1932, Fianna Fail has ruled for 60 out of the 78 years since then. Normally, after a stint in power of between a decade and sixteen years the electorate would elect a coalition government consisting of the opposition parties for a single term. Then the electorate would be quickly seduced by the promises and nationalist rhetoric of Fianna Fail ("Soldiers of Destiny" in Irish Gaelic) and return the party to power. Even the notorious corruption of the Charles Haughey era from 1980 to 1992 failed to dim the enthusiasm of the public for the soldiers. Maybe it was their pioneering of the Northern Ireland peace process in 1993 that served to keep them in power. FF under Albert Reynolds pioneered the peace process in 1992 and then were deposed in late 1994 by the Labour Party switching coalition partners in the Irish version of the "smelly exercise." But unlike Shimon Peres, Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Foreign Minister Dick Spring was able to pull this maneuver off smoothly. But the peace process ran into trouble and the Fine Gael-Labour Party-Democratic Left "Rainbow Coalition" was replaced by Fianna Fail once more in the summer of 1997. The peace process and the Celtic Tiger Irish economic miracle kept the party in power for the next 13 years.
The Likud, another party like Fianna Fail with paramilitary origins and a reputation for corruption, has since 1977 created a similar but less successful track record. Labor was allowed to regain power briefly in 1992-96 and 1999-2001. But the Likud has lacked Fianna Fail's "green thumb" when it comes to the economy and has not managed the peace process well, resulting in pressure from Washington. Now there is little opposition to replace the Likud.
Expect to see Fianna Fail replaced by a Fine Gael-Labour coalition in Ireland very soon. Such coalitions ran the country from 1973 to 1977 and from late 1982 to early 1987 and from 1994 to 1997. We will have to wait three or four years to see if Irish politics subsides into the usual pattern of the soldiers returning to their destiny of power. Or maybe the Irish have wised up, and seeing as Fianna Fail finally renounced its claim to Northern Ireland as part of the peace process in December 1999 and have failed miserably at reviving the Irish language as the working language of the country, maybe the electorate will allow the country to develop normal European politics. That would involve Fine Gael evolving into a centrist party so that instead of two conservative parties and a left-wing party that was much weaker, the electorate could have a real choice between Right and Center-Left. Maybe Israelis will also one day get this choice.
Update: The day after this was posted, the four main establishment parties in Ireland agreed to a deal to get a finance bill that would okay the deal with the European Union for a loan pushed through the Oireachtas (Irish parliament), so that elections won't interrupt this. It now seems likely that there will be an election in late February.