January 25, 2008 in Nation/World

Italian government falls after 20 months

Tracy Wilkinson Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

Italian opposition senators celebrate after a no-confidence vote Thursday in Rome toppled embattled Premier Romano Prodi.
(Full-size photo)

Fast fact

Italy has had 61 governments in the 62 years since the end of World War II.

ROME – Twenty months after it came to power, the Italian government fell late Thursday when Prime Minister Romano Prodi lost a vote of confidence in parliament and was forced to resign.

The demise of Prodi’s center-left coalition caps weeks of bitter political fighting but sends Italy into a new period of uncertainty while either an interim government is installed or fresh elections are called.

Prodi had spent much of his time in office simply trying to survive politically. His coalition contained a wildly disparate lineup of parties that fought among themselves. With only a narrow majority in the parliament, Prodi found himself routinely challenged by the center-right opposition. He faced nearly three dozen confidence votes before finally losing the latest one by a 161-156 margin.

Crippled by the relentless bickering, he failed to enact many of the visionary economic and electoral reforms he had promised. Ultimately, the end came thanks to the machinations of a longtime ally, the head of a tiny party who turned on him.

“Halting this government’s work is a luxury Italy cannot afford,” a subdued and clearly saddened Prodi told senators before Thursday’s vote. He warned that the country could be headed “once again into a vacuum that makes it ungovernable.”

Prodi, a former economics professor known for a somewhat plodding style, had survived a confidence vote just a day earlier in the lower house of parliament, where he had a comfortable majority. But he was not able to muster sufficient support Thursday in the more evenly divided Senate.

It is now up to President Giorgio Napolitano, the nonpartisan head of state, to consult with leading politicians and elder statesmen to figure out what to do next. He could ask an elected politician to form an interim government, or call elections.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s richest man and the former prime minister unseated by Prodi in the most recent election, in April, 2006, is eager to return to power. Polls show he would win an election held now.

“We are asking for elections immediately,” said Berlusconi.

But Prodi’s heir-apparent, the most likely candidate to lead the center-left, advised against elections. “It would not guarantee stability,” said Walter Veltroni, the popular mayor of Rome.

Italy has had 61 governments in the 62 years since the end of World War II. Prodi’s lasted 618 days, the seventh longest, according to the Italian news agency Ansa.

Inside the Senate chamber as the vote was announced, one right-wing senator, Nino Strano, opened a bottle of champagne, drawing an indignant rebuke from those in charge. “This is not a pub!” roared Senate President Franco Marini.

Prodi, 68, presided over a troubled country that has received a lot of bad news lately, including a declining economy recently surpassed by smaller neighbor Spain – a lancing blow to national pride.

Thursday’s events were set in motion by Clemente Mastella, Prodi’s justice minister.

Mastella resigned last week after it was revealed he was the target of a corruption investigation by state prosecutors. He could face criminal charges, his wife was placed under house arrest and 23 associates also were implicated.

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