BERTIE Ahern's decade-long tenure as Taoiseach will come to an end next month after he dramatically announced his decision to step down as leader of the country yesterday.
An early poll by the Irish Independent reveals Tanaiste Brian Cowen already has the support of 29 Fianna Fail TDs in his bid to become the new party leader.
A total of 18 Fianna Fail TDs, including three junior ministers, publicly backed Mr Cowen to succeed Mr Ahern as Taoiseach in a day of drama yesterday.
A further 11 backbenchers privately said the Tanaiste was their choice.
In a shock announcement, Mr Ahern yesterday confirmed he would formally tender his resignation to President Mary McAleese on May 6.
Surrounded by his government colleagues, Mr Ahern expressed thanks to his supporters over more than three decades as a TD.
He denied his announcement was linked to the deluge of damning revelations about his personal finances emerging from the Mahon Tribunal in recent weeks.
The Taoiseach insisted he was solely motivated by what was in the "best interests of the people".
Fighting back tears, Mr Ahern said he never put personal interest above the public good.
"I have served this country and the people I have the honour to represent in Dail Eireann honestly," he said.
The 56-year-old Taoiseach defended his record in office, despite the ongoing tribunal revelations.
"I know in my heart of hearts that I have done no wrong and wronged no one," he said.
The Cabinet, Fianna Fail TDs and global leaders all paid tribute to Mr Ahern's contribution to politics at home and abroad over the past decade.
Mr Ahern's contribution to the peace process in the North was singled out.
Mr Cowen revealed Mr Ahern confidentially informed him of his decision to stand down on Tuesday night.
He denied any pressure was put on Mr Ahern from within Fianna Fail and said he had decided to leave office with "great dignity".
However, opposition leaders last night insisted the Taoiseach was forced to resign amid growing pressure within his own party. Urging the Taoiseach's successor to call a general election, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny claimed he had merely "bowed to the inevitable".
"Mr Ahern was effectively forced to resign by the weight of his own evidence and his own actions," he said.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, who had repeatedly called for Mr Ahern's resignation in recent months, welcomed his decision to step down after almost 11 years.
"I believe his decision today will enable this House and politics generally to move on to put at the top of our political agenda issues that are of immediate concern to people of this country," he said.
Mr Gilmore said he came to the conclusion many months ago that Mr Ahern would find it impossible to continue in office because of the mounting contradictions between statements he made about his financial affairs and the evidence uncovered by the Mahon Tribunal.
Mr Cowen refused to comment on his own leadership ambitions as he said the day was about Mr Ahern.
However, an initial poll of Fianna Fail ministers and backbenchers carried out by the Irish Independent reveals any other entrant into the race will face an uphill battle.
No cabinet ministers backed a candidate in the race, although Brian Lenihan ruled himself out of contention and called for the party to unite behind a unanimous choice.
The succession stakes will take shape today as the Fianna Fail hierarchy will outline how the election contest will be handled and when it will happen.
Mr Ahern's successor is expected to be in place before the Taoiseach departs from office on May 6.
Dermot Ahern, Micheal Martin and Mary Hanafin have not ruled themselves out of the race. Minister Ahern is expected to make an announcement today and says he has made a decision after discussing the matter with his wife.
The 18 Fianna Fail TDs to publicly back Mr Cowen included junior ministers Conor Lenihan, John Browne and Michael Kitt.
Backbenchers Sean Ardagh, Chris Andrews, Charlie O'Connor, Mary O'Rourke, Peter Kelly, Sean Fleming, Michael Fitzpatrick, Sean O Fearghail, Margaret Conlon, John Cregan, Niall Collins, Timmy Dooley, Martin Mansergh, Noel Treacy and Michael Finneran also gave their public backing to the Tanaiste.
Another 11 backbenchers privately revealed to the Irish Independent that they would be supporting Mr Cowen.
Meanwhile, the High Court reserved judgment on the challenge by Bertie Ahern to the handling by the Mahon Tribunal of its inquiries into lodgments to his accounts when he was minister for finance in 1993 and 1994.
The Divisional Court, which will give its decision later, will decide whether Mr Ahern is entitled to claim legal privilege over documents prepared by banking expert Paddy Stronge, and it will decide if and how the tribunal can deal in its final report with statements the Taoiseach made inside the Dail about his personal finances.
A third issue in the case -- in which Mr Ahern sought orders requiring the tribunal to hand over documents on which it based its claims concerning the lodgments -- was resolved following an agreement to hand over the documents earlier this week.