IN his quieter, more reflective moments, Brian Cowen would be forgiven for dwelling briefly on what might have been. What if he hadn't played such a key role in the past two weeks of the last general election campaign, when he helped propel the Fianna Fáil comeback and deliver a surprise against-the-odds victory.

If three or four seats had gone the other way, Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens – rather than Fianna Fáil, the Greens and the PDs – would have formed a government. Bertie Ahern would have resigned as leader of Fianna Fáil with Cowen taking over a party in opposition but with a substantial presence in the Dáil.

Sure when the economic crisis hit, Cowen's record as finance minister would have come under scrutiny. Some of the blame would have been laid at his door. But ultimately it would have been the Rainbow government taking the tough decisions: bailing out the banks and cutting public sector pay, social welfare rates and pensioners' medical cards. And, for that, it would be facing the wrath of the electorate.

It's doubtful if that government would have even survived to deliver the tough medicine. Either way, Cowen would have been sitting pretty on the opposition benches, tearing strips off a beleaguered Enda Kenny and his government and thinking potentially of an overall majority.

The irony is that Cowen's campaign tour de force in saving Fianna Fáil's skin in the last general election has had disastrous consequences for his own political career and for his party.

The Taoiseach will never say it – indeed Mary O'Rourke's comment that the next election was already lost was raised by a number of TDs at last week's parliamentary party meeting – but it's now about damage limitation for Fianna Fáil.

The next government will be Fine Gael and Labour. The only doubt is over the margin of victory and the breakdown of seats between the two parties.

Fianna Fáil is in uncharted territory. In the 1992 general election debacle under Albert Reynolds, there was shock that the most successful political party in western Europe had fallen to 39%. One recent poll had them at less than half that figure, overtaken not just by Fine Gael but also Labour – the 'half' in the two-and-a-half party system.

It's no exaggeration to say the party is in crisis. It has a leader who probably wouldn't win a vote of confidence among his own TDs. The famed Fianna Fáil machine is not what it was. The party is in debt. Its main calling card over the years – a reputation for economic competency – lies in tatters. If there was a general election in the morning, some of its TDs believe it could be returned with less than 40 TDs – not even one TD per constituency. Just to put that in historical context, Fianna Fáil since it came to power in 1932 has always returned at least one TD in every constituency. Some have even begun to speculate if this is the beginning of the end of the state's dominant political force.

Unbowed but hugely bloodied

Things are also likely to get worse before they get better. The government has made it to the summer, unbowed but hugely bloodied, but the autumn promises enormous challenges.

Last week's marches over cuts in respite care offered a glimpse of what is likely to lie ahead next year when a further €3bn in savings are introduced in December's budget. Coming up with that €3bn is going to be extremely difficult. Public sector pay cannot be cut after the Croke Park agreement, while further social welfare reductions seem unlikely as deflation is unlikely to continue into 2011. The government's options in the budget will be further limited if the coalition decides not to go for any form of flat rate property/water charges.

Aside from getting through the budget, the other worry for the government is the ongoing reduction in its Dáil majority. With the loss of Mattie McGrath, the government's typical majority in votes is down to four or five. It will be difficult to defer the three by-elections beyond next spring and a number of government TDs have missed recent votes due to illness. "This Dáil is taking its toll in a way I haven't seen a Dáil take its toll for 15 years and it seems to be on our side of the tent," said one senior Fianna Fáil figure last week.

While Cowen is determined the coalition will run its full term – thus giving the economy and the two parties the maximum time to recover – the prospect of the government simply running out of numbers during 2011 is a real one.

If the predicted results in those by-elections – and the Dublin mayoral contest – were bad enough, it would prompt a move against Cowen's leadership, particularly if Fianna Fáil is around the low- to mid-20s in the opinion polls.

But, as of now, the absence of a credible cabinet figure coming forward to present an alternative means that, despite the grumbling, Cowen will continue as leader. His supporters in the party argue that, despite all the criticism he has shipped, Cowen has performed a minor miracle in keeping the show on the road during the past two years. The severity of the cuts in pay and social welfare, tax increases and spending reductions made it inevitable that there would be dissent. Cowen's achievement, they argue, has been in limiting this dissent to the more marginal issues – such as stag hunting – while keeping discipline rock solid during the votes of national importance such as the budget and the bank bail-outs.

There is a suspicion that history will be kinder to Cowen's tenure as Taoiseach (if not his time in the Department of Finance) but that won't be much consolation to the dozens of Fianna Fáil TDs in danger of losing their seats.

"What's happened is very un-Fianna Fáil. They've managed to upset every single element of their support. You could always rely on the pensioners and the working class to support Fianna Fáil. No longer. Their support in the middle classes has been decimated. As for the money boys, a lot of them are no longer money boys and they [Fianna Fáil] will feel it in their coffers," one Labour party source said.

Such is the potential level of seat loss that it begs the question as to whether we are seeing the beginning of the end of Fianna Fáil's hegemony in Irish politics.

Opposition strategists – so used to being on the receiving end – will believe it when they see it.

"I don't think it's going to happen. I do think they understand that they are going out of government and possibly for two terms – the second term being dependent on how Fine Gael and Labour perform in office," one senior opposition strategist said.

"But my experience of Fianna Fáil in opposition is they take a year or a year and a half out, rejuvenate and then come at you day and night. Their political network is still quite substantial and it's still the most powerful organisation in the country."

But for all that, opposition figures still expect Fianna Fáil to get a hammering in the next general election. "The voters will come back [to Fianna Fáil] at some point but they want them out in the next election," is the verdict. Many within Fianna Fáil agree – believing that the best case scenario is a respectable defeat a la the British Labour Party – but not quite all.

Candidates to attract premium

The optimists in the party point out that Fianna Fáil rose by seven percentage points during the last general election campaign when voters concentrated on the issues. They also believe that while Fianna Fáil nationally may be struggling in the polls, their candidates will attract a premium and that a lot of the surge in support to Labour is a soft vote that could ultimately move again before or during an election, particularly when there is greater scrutiny of their policies.

"It's too early to say that it's over. There's nobody foolish enough to be saying 'we'll win'. We're not in a good position but there are a lot of us determined that we won't be there in two years' time," said one senior Fianna Fáil politician.

A lot, he added, would depend on the budget. "If the economic pick-up continues and we do the budget right, it will help settle nerves among TDs. If we can inch our way back up to 30%, people will start believing again and realise that if you have the core Fianna Fáil vote behind you, it's a good base".

The example of the British Labour party, which may have saved up to 70 seats in the final week of the election campaign with well-organised local campaigns, involving targeted literature, has not gone unnoticed within Fianna Fáil.

But everything, it appears, hinges on getting to 2012 and putting some distance between the election and the worst of the recession. Even then it is far from guaranteed that either the economy or Fianna Fáil will have recovered sufficiently.

These are dark days for Fianna Fáil – the party that has been in government for almost 62 of the past 78 years – and despite the fighting talk, there is little reason to believe they're going to get any brighter for the foreseeable future.

in for one hell of a beating: but how bad will it actually be?

IT could be the worst of times. The date for the next general election is not even known but it already seems clear that Fianna Fáil is, to borrow from Norwegian soccer commentator Bjørge Lillelien, in for "one hell of a beating".

Last Tuesday, Fianna Fáil TD Mary O'Rourke said she expects her party to be voted out of power at the next general election and added, "When you're at 24% in the polls how could you expect otherwise?"

Former RTÉ political correspondent Seán Duignan famously said, ahead of the 1977 general election, that if Jack Lynch's Fianna Fáil managed to win, "it would be the greatest comeback since Lazarus". If Fianna Fáil wins the next general election, the party would have a strong case for producing a revised edition of the Bible itself with a new chapter on the party's miracle.

So how bad will the result actually be for Fianna Fail?

Worst case scenario

Complete meltdown for Fianna Fáil. Things get worse for a party that thought it had reached its lowest ebb in the 2009 local elections. The economy fails to recover and Fianna Fáil remains in the low 20s in opinion polls. They return with between 40 to 45 seats and they are likely to be out of office for at least two terms.

The middle ground

The economy slowly picks up. The government runs its full term and Fianna Fáil climb back up towards 30% in the opinion polls. After fighting a good election campaign, allied to the strength and experience of the party's candidates, Fianna Fáil come back with 50+ seats.

Best case scenario

Questions marks remain over Enda Kenny. The gloss comes off Eamon Gilmore. FF/Greens stay in government until the end of term before the old Cowen, who performed so well in the 2007 election, returns and the party wins over 60 seats. FF is out of government but poised to return at the next available opportunity.

Paddy Power odds on FF seats in next election

40 or under (4/1), 41 to 45 (7/1), 46 to 50 (6/1), 51 to 55 (4/1), 56 to 60 (7/2), 61 to 65 (9/2), 66 to 70 (6/1), 71 to 75 (10/1), 76 to 80 (14/1), over 80 (12/1)