DUBLIN (AP) - Members of Ireland's environmentalist Green Party overwhelmingly voted Saturday to stay in Prime Minister Brian Cowen's coalition government as it battles a runaway deficit, surging unemployment and crippled banks.
Defeat for the Green leaders' pro-government motion at a special party conference would have torpedoed Cowen's 2-year-old coalition and forced Ireland into an early parliamentary election.
But grass-roots Green members voted 523-99 to support a package of revised government policies and goals. That surpassed the two-thirds "yes" that the party required for the 43-page document, which was negotiated over nine days and completed Friday night - barely in time for the Green gathering.
Had Green leaders failed to persuade their members, the party's lawmakers would have been obliged to withdraw their pivotal parliamentary support from Cowen, leader of the rival Fianna Fail party, leaving him unable to pass critical legislation.
Unique among Irish parties, the Greens require strong, formal backing from members before they can change their policies.
Overshadowing Saturday's debate and vote was the likelihood that, if the Greens triggered an election, they would suffer humiliating losses. All recent polls rate both Fianna Fail and the Greens at record-low popularity levels as Ireland endures its worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
The Green vote improves the chances that Cowen's government will
be able to pass two crucial, bitterly disputed pieces of legislation in coming weeks.
A bill to create a "bad bank" would transfer ownership of nearly euro80 billion ($115 billion) in dud property loans from Ireland's banks to a new state-run National Assets Management Agency. That would be followed by passage of an emergency December budget slashing spending and raising taxes in hopes of pruning euro4 billion annually from Ireland's deficit.
During debate before the vote, Green lawmakers who helped negotiate the new coalition terms with Fianna Fail told delegates they must stay the course through the government's full five-year term and not risk re-election until 2012.
They said the policy package on offer would allow the Greens to achieve many environmental, educational and ethical goals, whereas voting against it would consign their ideals to political oblivion.
The new Fianna Fail-Green program for government does commit to key Green goals, including hiring more teachers, blocking plans to introduce fees for university education, and requiring greater accountability in politicians' fundraising and expenses.
Analysts and opposition leaders expressed doubts over whether most of the document's ideals could ever be achieved, particularly given Ireland's dismal financial position.
"I will believe it when I see it. Practically everything (in the document) seems very vague and aspirational, and disconnected from our depressing economic realities," said Pat Rabbitte, a lawmaker in the opposition Labour Party.
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