DUBLIN – Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen defied calls to resign as head of the ruling Fianna Fail party yesterday and instead offered colleagues the chance to vote on his leadership in a secret ballot this week.

Cowen’s move is only a stay of execution ahead of a general election, likely in March, that is expected to oust him and his government following an unprecedented economic crisis and humiliating EU/IMF bailout.

He has promised to call the election once his government’s tough 2011 austerity budget clears a final hurdle in parliament, a vow he reiterated yesterday.