ROME — Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi resigned Friday after losing a secret parliamentary vote, ending Italy's longest-running government since World War II.
President Francesco Cossiga asked Craxi to stay on as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed.
Craxi's five-party coalition has been in power for 1,050 days--since Aug. 4, 1983--longer than any of the 43 previous postwar governments.
But the coalition was beset by feuding between Socialists and the dominant Christian Democrats over which party should have the premiership. The other government partners were the small Republican, Social Democrat and Liberal parties.
Craxi, 52, Italy's first postwar Socialist prime minister, submitted the resignation to Cossiga at the Quirinale presidential palace after a 20-minute Cabinet meeting. "I hope that this critical situation can be rapidly overcome in the national interest," Craxi later told reporters.
He had rushed back to Rome earlier in the day, cutting short his stay at a European Common Market summit in The Hague. "Whenever I'm away, something like this happens," Craxi told reporters at the Rome airport.
A controversial vote Thursday night in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, prompted the resignation.
In a secret ballot, which the law allows on all legislative measures except votes of confidence, the legislators voted 293-266 against a government-proposed bill aimed at streamlining local financing.
Only minutes earlier, the government won a public vote on a confidence motion 338-230.
Left-wing opposition parties said the government's loss on a major piece of legislation--the local taxation and expenditures bill--meant the government should resign.
'Snipers' in Legislature
Christian Democrat and Socialist legislators blamed the loss on "snipers" from their own ranks who defected during the vote.
Claudio Martelli, a top Craxi aide, called the secret vote an "ambush" and added, "It robs citizens of the faculty of controlling the people they elect."
In recent weeks, Christian Democrat leader Ciriaco De Mita said Craxi no longer had the mandate to remain in power and should be replaced by a Christian Democrat.
Christian Democrats, Italy's largest party with more than 30% of the national vote, have led or dominated all postwar governments. The Socialists received about 13% of the vote.
The two parties had joined together in an informal alliance to keep the nation's second-largest party, the Communists, out of the government.
'The decision to resign was a forced choice," said Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini, leader of the Republican Party. "For almost six months, the majority was missing . . . and in fact the activity of the government was paralyzed on essential points."
Craxi's Cabinet faced a crisis Oct. 17 when the Republican Party withdrew from the coalition over the prime minister's handling of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise liner.
But the coalition was quickly revived with no changes in the Cabinet makeup after the parties patched up their differences.