Don't knock it: one Dun Laoghaire resident makes her feelings about the current government clear

THURSDAY marks Brian Cowen's first anniversary in the job of Taoiseach. But the heady optimism in the days after his accession to power seems like light years away.

Twelve months ago, comparisons were being drawn with Sean Lemass, amid predictions that Cowen would go on to become one of the great taoisigh.

There is no talk of Lemass these days – the worst recession suffered by any western country since the great depression of the 1930s has seen to that. The question now is will Cowen take over the mantle from John Bruton as the state's shortest-serving taoiseach?

If he is to avoid that fate, Cowen has another 563 days to complete in Government Buildings. Even his admirers – and there are still many in Fianna Fáil – accept that the chances of this are receding by the week.

And whatever about 563 days, the next 33 are crucial if he is to survive in the job. That is the timeline until the local, European and by-elections. As if three election tests weren't enough for Cowen, the worry must be that 5 June will also turn out to be a decisive referendum on the Taoiseach and his government.

Suggestions that John McGuinness's Late Late Show performance might prove a catalyst for open dissent against Cowen never had any solid foundation. McGuinness has assets as a politician, but he was never going to be a rallying figure for the disaffected. "He has no following," was the blunt assessment of one TD. The revelation that he had brought in a PR consultant to advise him prior to his RTé appearance only increased scepticism towards him within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party.

But there is no question that some of the criticisms made by McGuinness are shared by others in the parliamentary party, particularly in relation to the Tánaiste Mary Coughlan.

The membership of what has been dubbed 'the corridor of the disaffected' in the parliamentary party isn't particularly high at the moment and they are, in the words of one close observer, a "disparate crew". However, that could change after 5 June.

The magnitude of the potential meltdown facing Fianna Fáil on that day is almost beyond belief. An opinion poll last weekend put Fianna Fáil at just 23% for the local elections. If this is replicated on election day then the party will lose far in excess of 50 seats – a performance that would have been regarded as impossible just a few months ago given how badly Fianna Fáil did in the 2004 local elections.

The word on the political grapevine is that the Fianna Fáil electoral machine – traditionally the party's biggest asset – is "demoralised" and "in tatters" across the country due to a combination of the government's annus horribilis and the decision to centralise candidate selection at head office.

The prognosis is equally dire in the Euro elections. The party is all over the place in the North West constituency and, unless it comes up with a strong candidate in the next few days, the unthinkable – no Fianna Fáil MEP for the west – could become thinkable.

Straight fight

Fianna Fáil is also in a major battle to hold its seat in Dublin, which is now only a three-seat constituency. With Fine Gael's Jim Mitchell and Labour's Proinsias De Rossa seemingly safe, it looks like a straight fight between sitting MEPs Eoin Ryan of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald for the last seat. Given the government's unpopularity in the capital, that looks a 50-50 call at best for Fianna Fáil.

We have known for the past 26 years that governments don't win by-elections and to imagine that trend could be bucked in either Dublin South or Dublin Central during the worst recession in a century is beyond wishful thinking.

So by Sunday 7 June, the government could be picking over the ruins of a local election meltdown; a European campaign that resulted in just two MEPs; and two serious by-election hammerings.

If that worst-case scenario becomes a reality, then the implications for Cowen and his Tánaiste Mary Coughlan will be enormous. It is impossible to believe that the government could simply continue on as normal in those circumstances.

Five years ago, in 2004, Bertie Ahern reacted to poor local and European elections by dispatching Charlie McCreevy to Europe. Rightly or wrongly, McCreevy had become the focal point for serious backbench criticism. For McCreevy in 2004, read Mary Coughlan in 2009.

Government TDs are quick to stress that, while there might be a fair bit of grumbling about the leadership, there are no heaves or plots against Cowen – and undoubtedly they are right. But as one Fianna Fáil source put its: "There is no need to plot. There are enough pitfalls ahead for the leadership – the first being the upcoming elections."

The softly-softly approach taken by the leadership with McGuinness in the wake of his extraordinary outburst may have been understandable, but some in government believe the "light touch" shown "could be storing up problems".

"The McGuinness thing was damaging, but what was more damaging was that they let him away with it. Where were the senior figures? Anyone can feel free now to let fly," one TD said.

There is also ongoing, if unsubstantiated, speculation about a less-than-perfect relationship between Cowen and his finance minister Brian Lenihan, although other close observers say the problems are not between the two men, but between the two departments and is little more than the traditional healthy tension between the two most important government offices.

Harden attitudes

The relationship with the Green Party remains good – although there was serious irritation at John Gormley's solo-run on the e-voting machines. But there is a worry that the reaction Green candidates are likely to receive on the doorsteps canvassing over the next five weeks could harden attitudes in that party and upset the harmony that has generally existed in government over the past two years.

It is of course possible that next month's elections will not turn out to be quite so disastrous for Fianna Fáil. An outcome of, say, 40 council-seat losses, four MEPs and respectable showings in the two by-elections would hardly be cause for celebration, but it would seriously ease the pressure on Cowen.

Others close to government, however, believe that a combination of a "vicious" public mood and a further round of €4bn in cutbacks/extra taxes to come in the autumn means that it "will be a miracle if the government survives until the end of the year".

One school of thought is that come September or October, Cowen may decide that, rather than allowing his government limp along without a mandate for the kind of tough measures required in the next budget, it is necessary to go to the country. The argument goes that he would call a general election and say: 'This is our budget. This is what is needed to get the country back on track. What is the opposition going to do?'

However, based on the current opinion polls, such an action by Cowen would effectively be calling time on his tenure as Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader. Even if Fianna Fáil was to win the economic argument, the level of public anger is such that it couldn't come close to winning an election. The counter argument however is that 'hanging on' may simply not be an option for Cowen.

In that respect, the upcoming elections are likely to prove pivotal. Thirty years ago, two by-election defeats marked the beginning of the end of Jack Lynch's leadership of Fianna Fáil. For better or worse, 5 June is likely to prove just as crucial to Brian Cowen.