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Prodi gets key support for a return

The Italian premier wins a first vote on staying in office. His coalition's still unsteady.

March 01, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson and Maria De Cristofaro | Times Staff Writers

ROME — The quarrelsome allies of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi rallied to his side late Wednesday, voting to restore him to office but laying bare ongoing challenges likely to undermine the new government.

The ballot in the Senate, coming at the end of a day of debate and cajoling, ended -- for now -- a government crisis triggered when Prodi abruptly stepped down last week.

President Giorgio Napolitano had rejected Prodi's resignation and instructed him to reassemble a government to be approved by both houses of Parliament this week.

Prodi emerged victorious from the Senate confidence vote by a margin of five out of 319 ballots cast. He faces an easier test Friday in the lower house, where he enjoys a wider majority.

The trouble doesn't end there, however. The political unity mustered by Prodi on Wednesday was not expected to continue as the government tackles a long list of divisive issues, including Italy's military mission in Afghanistan and painful economic reforms. And a poll published Wednesday showed support for Prodi's center-left coalition had dropped to less than 40%.

Rocco Buttiglione, an influential senator in the opposition coalition headed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said he gave the new government three or four months before it collapses again.

"Christian Democrats can't work with former communists," he said, referring to the broad range of ideologies in Prodi's nine-party alliance.

Prodi was forced to resign after a mutiny in the coalition in which two communist lawmakers refused to endorse his foreign policy in a Senate vote.

The two rebellious senators fell in line to support Prodi on Wednesday, but they cautioned it was only to ensure the survival of the government.

Both legislators said they reserved the right to dissent in the future.

In perhaps the understatement of the evening, Piero Fassino, head of the Democratic Left Party and a Prodi ally, said Wednesday's narrow, wobbly victory "confirms he will have to govern through consultation."

"It's the political reality," he said.

Failure by Prodi to win the confidence vote probably would have forced new elections. His coalition was elected last year in one of the closest contests in Italian history.

A survey conducted by pollster Renato Mannheimer and published Wednesday in the leading daily Corriere della Sera suggested that Berlusconi and his followers might win a fresh election.

More than that, the poll reflected a generalized disaffection with Italy's historically fractious and notoriously unstable politics.

The public, Mannheimer noted, is "worried, uncertain and pessimistic about the future of how politics are conducted in the country."

*

wilkinson@latimes.com

Wilkinson reported from Madrid and De Cristofaro from Rome.

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