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Italy's prime minister resigns

Prodi narrowly loses a foreign policy vote in the Senate, toppling his 9-month-old coalition.

February 22, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Stung by a bruising foreign policy defeat, beleaguered Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned Wednesday, his center-left government collapsing after just nine months in power.

Prodi failed to win parliamentary endorsement of his decision to maintain Italian troops in Afghanistan, a loss attributed in part to desertions by members of his coalition who oppose continued cooperation with the U.S. military in Italy and abroad.

Chants of "Quit! Quit!" filled the Italian Senate as opposition politicians in business suits jumped up and down and pumped their fists upon realizing Prodi had lost the vote. A few hours later, he tendered his resignation to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Napolitano said through a spokesman that he would begin talks today aimed at forming a new government.

Among the scenarios, he could ask Prodi to build a new government, avoiding fresh elections that neither the right nor the left appeared eager to engage in just yet.

Prodi will continue as a caretaker prime minister until a new government takes power, Napolitano's office said.

The nation was once infamous for its revolving-door governments during decades of tumultuous political infighting and scandal. Prodi's predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, last year became the first Italian prime minister since World War II to finish a five-year term.

Berlusconi prided himself on the length of his tenure, and many Italians hoped a new era of stability had dawned. But Prodi's government was probably doomed from the start. He narrowly defeated Berlusconi's center-right coalition in hard-fought elections last year, gaining only the tiniest of majorities in the Senate, which enfeebled his mandate.

Berlusconi, who could return to office again, could barely contain his glee Wednesday. "The government has been clamorously defeated in Parliament," he said.

Prodi's resignation was a matter of "political, constitutional and ethical" duty, Berlusconi said, adding that the prime minister's handling of foreign policy proved him "incapable" and brought "international humiliation" to Italy.

The event that triggered the government crisis was not a confidence vote and did not carry a constitutional requirement that the prime minister step down. It was, instead, a Senate vote to endorse the government's general foreign policy, including maintenance of Italy's 1,800-member military mission in Afghanistan.

But Prodi and his foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, had staked their credibility on the measure. "I am asking for a strong and clear consensus," D'Alema said on the Senate floor.

The move proved to be a serious miscalculation. The measure fell short of winning Senate majority approval by two votes.

Prodi's coalition, a patchwork of nine disparate political parties, has been torn by divisions and bickering. Several leading leftists in the coalition want Italy out of Afghanistan and oppose Prodi's decision to permit the U.S. military to expand its base at Vicenza in northern Italy.

Tens of thousands of Italians, including members of three parties from the Prodi coalition, marched last week on the northern base to protest the expansion.

Prodi has said he is obliged to carry through with a promise made by Berlusconi that gave Washington permission to enlarge the base. Reneging would be seen as an "act of hostility," Prodi said.

In another move this month that embarrassed Prodi, Berlusconi's opposition bloc managed to pass a measure in the Senate approving the Vicenza expansion.

Angered over Vicenza, two Communist senators, Franco Turigliatto and Ferdinando Rossi, took Wednesday's vote as their cue to abandon Prodi. Their desertion deprived Prodi of the majority he needed, setting in motion the government's fall.

Analysts here were quick to recall that it was far-left members of his coalition that toppled Prodi's earlier government in 1998.

Prodi may yet be able to hold on to power. His allies were rallying Wednesday evening to his defense and plotting ways to reconfigure their government.

"We are ready to reconfirm our full support for the Prodi government," Dario Franceschini of the centrist Margherita (Daisy) party said, suggesting that a confidence vote could be called that would demonstrate that Prodi and his coalition still have a majority to govern.

But the opposition was equally emphatic in doubting that Prodi would continue in office.

"If he wants to go ahead [and attempt to form a government], good luck," opposition politician Pier Ferdinando Casini told state television. But, he added, "the country is paying the price."


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