The Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, has resigned as leader of the ruling Fiánna Fail party ahead of a general election.Cowen, who won a secret leadership ballot on Tuesday during a week of political turmoil, will remain at the head of government until the election on 11 March.The Taoiseach has seen his ratings plummet amid Ireland’s economic crisis and its bailout by the EU and IMF.“I’m concerned that renewed internal criticism of Fiánna Fail is deflecting attention from this important debate,” Cowen said.“Therefore, taking everything into account after discussing the matter with my family I have taken, on my own counsel, the decision to step down.”Cowen said he spoke to John Gormley, leader of the junior coalition party the Greens, before making the announcement. He said his resignation would not affect government business.“My political assessment is that this is the right thing to do for the party,” he said at a press conference at the Merrion Hotel, central Dublin. “But it’s about me directing my attention to the country.”In the past week six ministers have resigned and Cowen’s cabinet reshuffle collapsed, prompting a Green threaten to pull out of the coalition government.“I believe that it was my duty to put in place the best possible team we could to fight this election to put them on the frontbench and into position,” the taoiseach said.“It was not a cynical view by me, it was a political act.”Opposition parties demanded Cowen set a new date for the general election.The Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, said he would move a motion of no confidence in Cowen as taoiseach in the Dáil next Tuesday unless he goes to the president to seek a dissolution of parliament.Kenny said his party would also vote against the government in next week’s motion of confidence previously put forward by the Labour party.The Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, said the Irish people did not want the government to remain in office another day. “It is simply not tenable for Cowen to remain on as taoiseach as his colleagues in Fiánna Fail squabble over the remnants of their party,” he said.The Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, said Cowen’s decision would lead to further instability. “The government and Fiánna Fail are in chaos. Their focus is not on the problems facing the country,” he said.