Italy’s government collapses as coalition comes unraveled

Times Staff Writer

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 Parliament, Prodi found himself routinely challenged by the center-right opposition.

He faced nearly three dozen confidence votes before finally losing the latest one, 161-156.


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 call elections or ask an elected politician to form an interim government.

Any election, however, would be undermined by a problematic system that complicates the way winning parties are given seats in Parliament and that can weaken a government, as it did Prodi’s.

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,” Berlusconi said after the Senate vote.

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.

As the government was ousted, its opponents celebrated. A procession of taxi drivers, many of whom belong to right-wing parties, paraded by the prime minister’s Palazzo Chigi, honking their horns and saying they were at the official residence to take Prodi home.

Other demonstrators bore signs demanding, “Elections now!”

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 that recently was surpassed on a per-capita basis by less-populous neighbor Spain, a blow to national pride. But he also was blamed for setbacks beyond his control, and much of the campaign against him smacked of crass politics.

Thursday’s “final act in a long calvary,” as one senator put it, was set in motion by Clemente Mastella, Prodi’s justice minister.

Mastella resigned last week after it was revealed that 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 were also implicated.

Prodi initially refused to accept the resignation, but eventually the specter of a justice minister embroiled in a corruption trial proved too much, and Mastella stepped down. He then turned around and accused Prodi of failing to show sufficient solidarity, pulled his small Christian Democratic faction from the coalition and forced Thursday’s confidence vote.

The ability of any number of small political factions -- “one-man parties,” as they are known here -- to topple a government is one of the many flaws of the Italian system, analysts say.

Italian lawmakers also are among the politicians most despised by the public, according to several surveys in which they are seen as corrupt, hugely overpaid and eager to put personal benefit before the good of the country.

Mastella ended up voting against his former ally and expected the other members of his party to follow suit. But one, Nuccio Cusumano, announced that he would support Prodi. Mastella’s Christian Democrats began chanting, “Traitor!” Someone spat on Cusumano, who fainted and was taken away on a stretcher.