Italy's recalcitrant politicians on Wednesday pushed the country into an early election, one that may return flamboyant business tycoon Silvio Berlusconi to power but will probably exacerbate long-running economic and social troubles.
Acting with what he said was deep regret, President Giorgio Napolitano dissolved Parliament and called elections, which were set for April 13-14. That is just two years after the last vote, and approximately three years ahead of schedule.
The decision was the latest step in Italy's ongoing political crisis, which unfolded, in its most recent manifestation, after a tiny political party withdrew from the center-left coalition government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
The desertion collapsed the government and Napolitano asked the Senate president to form an interim administration that could at least rewrite Italy's flawed election law before new voting had to be called.
But Berlusconi, rallying a slate of right-wing parties, managed to block those efforts, leaving Napolitano with what he said was no choice. Berlusconi, who has twice served as prime minister, most recently from 2001 to 2006, wants elections now because he leads in opinion surveys, despite his track record of corruption charges and scandal.
The election law is widely blamed for Italy's notorious political instability because it gives disproportionate power and influence to minuscule parties often formed around a single person's ego.
Prodi, never a charismatic leader, had managed to set a handful of badly needed economic reforms in motion. But inflation soared and surveys showed large portions of the population feeling poorer than ever. Now, while time, energy and millions of euros are spent on the election, the governing of the country will remain virtually paralyzed, analysts said.
"Why can't we be a normal country?" the newsmagazine L'Espresso lamented on its cover. "Italy in tilt," it said. Game over.
Prodi, a 68-year-old former economics professor who succeeded Berlusconi as prime minister, reiterated Wednesday that he would not run for reelection, choosing instead to anoint Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni as his heir and speaking of a "change in generation."
Veltroni, 52, a former communist with decades in politics, is attempting to cast himself as a new face, a force for change.
"Italy has the right to something new, to pull out of a period of conflict, division and political deadlock," he told reporters. "There's a need to turn the page."
Berlusconi, who has made no secret of his face-lifts, hair plugs and heavy makeup, is 71 and heads the largest party on the right. Veltroni heads a new Democratic Party, meant to emulate some aspects of the American party system, including the use of a primary to select its leader. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean was in town when Veltroni and a group of politicians launched the party.
But Veltroni doesn't have much time to overcome the legendary divisions within the Italian left.
Berlusconi, by contrast, is the richest man in Italy, with an enormous media empire at his command. He was attending his mother's funeral Wednesday and not making public comments. But earlier in the week he reiterated his demand for elections.
"The country needs to have an operating government as soon as possible, to resolve the truly serious problems," he said. "Elections are the highest and most noble moment of a democracy."