Italy in political limbo as humiliated Prodi quits

Italy is facing the prospect of an early election or the formation of an interim government after the resignation of prime minister Romano Prodi.

The premier quit yesterday after his centre-left coalition lost a Senate confidence vote, in a humiliating end to a 20-month-old government plagued by infighting.

President Giorgio Napolitano must now decide whether to hold early election. In the meantime, Mr Prodi will stay on in a caretaker role.

Elected in April 2006, Mr Prodi had a shaky government from nearly the start. It lurched toward collapse this week after a small Christian Democrat party, whose votes were vital to his Senate majority, withdrew its support in the latest coalition spat.

The government lost 161-156 yesterday after a fiery debate during which one senator was spat upon, fainted and had to be carried out on a stretcher.

MPs from the conservative coalition of former premier Sylvio Berlusconi cheered and popped the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine as the defeat was announced.

Mr Berlusconi, the billionaire media magnate who lost to Mr Prodi in 2006 and is eager to return to office, called for swift new elections.

But some MPs are pushing for an interim government to reform an electoral system blamed for contributing to Italy’s chronic political instability. Decades of revolving-door politics have produced 61 governments since the Second World War.

It was the second time that Mr Prodi was forced to resign because of betrayal by his allies. His first term as premier ended after two years in 1998 when he lost the support of the radical left.

Italy’s political climate stabilised in recent years, with Mr Berlusconi’s conservative government lasting for a full five-year term starting in 2001.

But Mr Prodi’s coalition – ranging from pro-Vatican centrists to Communists and Greens – began to squabble soon after his victory over Mr Berlusconi.

Known for his unemotional speaking style, Mr Prodi appealed to senators before the vote to let his government continue to carry out badly-needed reforms.

Mr Prodi, 68, had pledged to reform Italy’s costly pension system and boost growth by liberalising many areas of the economy, from insurance and banking services to taxis and pharmacies.

But the reforms were often watered down after street protests or under pressure from the radical left in the coalition. Italy’s economy, while emerging from a period of zero growth, remained sluggish.

Other campaign promises remained unfulfilled, such as giving legal rights to same-sex couples, a bid which angered some centrists in the coalition.

“The country leaves Prodi here and moves on, I don’t see him as a meaning political figure in the future,” said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at Rome’s John Cabot University.

Mr Prodi had earlier won a confidence vote in the lower Chamber of Deputies, where his coalition forces have a comfortable majority. He said he went through with the riskier Senate vote “not a gesture of stubbornness but of being consistent”. But he lost his gamble that his allies might close ranks and that Italy’s seven senators-for-life could rescue him as in the past.

The presidential palace said Mr Napolitano would start consulting political leaders today on what to do next.

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