Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, Italy's longest-lasting government leader since World War II, resigned Tuesday and broke up his five-party coalition government.
The move seemed likely to touch off weeks of political crisis and possibly provoke early elections.
Craxi handed his resignation to President Francesco Cossiga shortly after delivering a 30-minute speech to the Senate. In the speech, he alternately complained of turmoil within his coalition and praised Italy's economic turnaround, political stability and growing sense of optimism since he took the reins of government 3 1/2 years ago.
Cossiga asked Craxi and his Cabinet, which took office in August, 1983, to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed.
Craxi's resignation had long been expected under the terms of an agreement he made last summer with his stronger coalition partners to step down this month in favor of a Christian Democrat.
But the manner of his resignation, and his speech, indicated that he is not prepared to move quietly aside, as had been expected, and that he is quite prepared to precipitate a crisis.
'Burdened by Ultimatum'
Complaining that he was burdened by an "ultimatum" from the Christian Democrats, he told the Senate that "the political atmosphere of tension . . . has ended by becoming unbreathable and noxious for all."
He said the ultimatum was in conflict with "the spirit of collaboration and cohesion necessary for the life of a coalition." He said his decision to resign was made "with absolute serenity" and added that he hopes it will help clarify the political situation, "as everyone is loudly demanding."
The coalition partners have been bickering for months over the sharing of power.
Craxi reluctantly agreed to the changeover last summer when his government lost its majority in a parliamentary vote on a finance bill. His agreement was the price for patching the coalition back together.
In the last two weeks, however, Craxi has dismissed the power-sharing accord as meaningless. His formal resignation to Cossiga indicated that he does not intend to go along with an orderly turnover to the Christian Democrats, which could have been accomplished as a package deal that simply replaced him as prime minister.
If the coalition cannot be re-established within the next few weeks, Cossiga will be forced to call parliamentary elections soon, probably in June, a year earlier than scheduled.
But since none of the coalition parties, including Craxi's Socialists, appear to want early elections--or, perhaps more important, to be blamed for provoking them--political commentators predicted a long period of difficult negotiations.
For Craxi's part, the continued life of the coalition may depend on the Christian Democrats' agreeing to give him a slightly longer lease on the prime minister's office, or giving the Socialists something of near-equal value in the balance sheet of government power, perhaps more Cabinet posts.
Lengthy Talks Predicted
One coalition partner, Franco Nicolazzi, who heads the Social Democratic Party, said the haggling could take a month or more. The other two coalition partners are the Republicans and the Liberals.
One sticking point appears to be the likely candidacy of Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti, a Christian Democrat, for the office of prime minister. Craxi is known to dislike Andreotti and may find it impossible to step aside in his favor.
Craxi's was the 45th Italian government since World War II, its most durable and the first to be led by a Socialist. Since it took office in 1983, annual inflation has decreased from 16% to 4%, labor costs have been brought under control, tax collections have increased and the country has come to rival Britain in overall economic power.