[R-G] Italian Prime Minister Resigns
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Wed Feb 21 22:37:19 MST 2007
February 22, 2007
Italian Prime Minister Resigns
By IAN FISHER
ROME, Feb. 21 — Italy's fragile government snapped suddenly on
Wednesday under the weight of its own internal divisions as well as a
broader skepticism about the European role in the worldwide fight
Prime Minister Romano Prodi, in office just nine months, submitted his
resignation on Wednesday evening after his ruling coalition lost a key
vote on foreign policy in the Senate.
Two of his own far-left coalition members abstained amid tensions over
whether Italy should continue to provide troops to Afghanistan and Mr.
Prodi's support of an expansion of an American military base in
Vicenza, in northern Italy.
With only a razor-thin majority, the abstentions killed the measure,
aimed at gaining Senate support for Italy's foreign policy, and
unexpectedly doomed the government.
"I can't in any way give my vote to this government with this foreign
policy," said Fernando Rossi, a senator from the Italian Communist
Party and one of the dissenters.
The vote came the same day Britain announced a substantial reduction
of its troops in southern Iraq and a week after a European
Parliamentary committee issued a strong report criticizing secret
American flights in Europe of terror suspects.
But the government's collapse also reflected its own inherent
weaknesses, possibly signaling that Italy's chronic political
instability may be coming out of remission. In a nation that has had
some 60 governments since World War II, Mr. Prodi has presided
uneasily over a coalition of nine diverse parties, ranging from
moderate Catholics to Communists.
"It's very bad," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor at the
University of Florence and expert in electoral law. "We still have to
come to terms with a working political system. We do not have a
working political system."
There are many scenarios for what comes next — and one possibility, if
not immediately likely, is a return to power of Silvio Berlusconi,
whom Mr. Prodi defeated in elections last year.
As ministers met throughout the afternoon to discuss how to go
forward, Mr. Berlusconi's supporters rallied outside the seat of
government, waving banners and demanding that the government step
"The country has been exposed, by a majority that isn't and by an
incompetent government that has rejected parliamentary dialogue — a
grave international humiliation," Mr. Berlusconi told reporters.
For Mr. Berlusconi to return, new elections would have to be held,
which at the moment seems several steps in the future.
After accepting Mr. Prodi's resignation, President Giorgio Napolitano
will begin on Thursday to consult with political parties and will ask
one of them to try to form a government.
Many political experts believed that Mr. Prodi would be given a chance
to shuffle his cabinet in a way that would satisfy the parties already
in the government. Then he would call for a confidence vote in
But many experts noted that such a government would remain weak, with
the deep splits over Afghanistan and the American base unresolved.
"Something has broken," said Franco Pavoncello, the president of John
Cabot University here and a political scientist. "This vote and the
reaction of the government has created damage to Prodi's ability to
In theory, the prime minister's term lasts five years, but Mr.
Berlusconi is the only prime minister to have endured that long. While
the government's weakness made it liable to fall at any moment, its
collapse on Wednesday came as something of a surprise. For months the
government has been bickering internally — and weathering attacks by
Mr. Berlusconi and other opposition leaders — over issues ranging from
the budget to a proposed law giving rights to unmarried couples.
But foreign policy remained a particular weak spot. Essentially, Mr.
Prodi and his ministers have sought to walk a difficult line, echoing
much of the skepticism in Europe about President Bush and the war in
Iraq while maintaining Italy's traditionally strong ties with America.
The government's far-left members, however, have strongly resisted the
presence of nearly 2,000 Italian troops in Afghanistan. And last
weekend, tens of thousands of people rallied against the expansion of
the American-staffed NATO base in Vicenza, which Mr. Prodi's
government reluctantly supported.
The splits grew deeper, and on Tuesday in Spain, Italy's foreign
minister, Massismo D'Alema, himself a former prime minister, called
for the Senate to endorse Italy's foreign policy. If it did not, he
said, the government should "go home," or step down.
In a long and impassioned speech before the vote on Wednesday, Mr.
D'Alema defended his government's position on Afghanistan and the
Vicenza base, in terms that he hoped would win the left's support.
"We have not supported the neo-conservative politics of the American
administration and we have not sent soldiers to Iraq," he told his
colleagues. "There is a profound difference between the military
operations in Afghanistan, approved by the United Nations, and those
He added that the support of expanding the Vicenza base was essential
to good relations with America. "To change course would be a hostile
act against the United States," he said.
In the end, the government needed 160 votes, but only got 158 with the
two abstentions. Opposition senators roared at the result, shouting
immediately: "Resign! Resign!"
Many experts said they believed Mr. D'Alema, one of the most powerful
and experienced members of the government, would resign. And as
Italy's leaders search for a broader solution in the next few days,
there are several alternatives to a mere shuffling of the current
The most dramatic, and perhaps least likely, is that Mr. Napolitano
could call immediate elections. But he has said he will not do so
until the current electoral law, instated by Mr. Berlusconi last year,
is changed. Many experts blame the law for virtually guaranteeing a
thin majority in the Senate no matter who wins, and thus destabilizing
the political system.
Another option is the appointment of a temporary government made up of
largely centrist technocrats. The aim would be to steer Italy toward
new elections, most likely engineering a change to electoral laws
A final possibility involves peeling off the more Centrist Union of
Christian Democrats, a party long allied, if uneasily, with Mr.
Berlusconi. Even as the government tottered on Wednesday, one party
leader, Marco Follini, seemed to raise the possibility. "The moment
has arrived to put into the pipeline a different center-left," he told
But Mr. D'Alimonte noted that the party does not have enough seats to
allow Mr. Prodi to cast off the rebellious far-left of his own party.
Simply adding on Mr. Follini's party to give Mr. Prodi a larger
majority in Parliament also remained a possibility, although Mr.
D'Alimonte noted that it also seemed a recipe for even deeper
disputes, since the party shares little politically with the
Communists who brought down the government.
Peter Kiefer contributed reporting.
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