Italian premier quits after setback

Prodi may re-form government after foreign policy defeat

February 22, 2007|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME -- Stung by a bruising foreign policy defeat, embattled Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned yesterday, his center-left government collapsing after just nine months in power.

Prodi failed to win parliamentary endorsement of his decision to maintain Italian troops in Afghanistan, a loss attributed in part to desertions by members of his coalition who oppose continued cooperation with the U.S. military in Italy and abroad.

Chants of "quit, quit!" filled the Italian Senate as opposition politicians in business suits jumped up and down and pumped their fists upon realizing Prodi had lost the vote. A few hours later, he tendered his resignation to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Napolitano said through a spokesman that he would begin talks today aimed at forming a new government.

Among the scenarios, he could ask Prodi to build a new government, avoiding fresh elections that neither the right nor the left appeared eager to engage in just yet.

Prodi will continue as a caretaker prime minister until a new government takes power, Napolitano's office said.

Italy was once infamous for its revolving-door governments during decades of tumultuous political infighting and scandal. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi last year became the first Italian prime minister since World War II to finish a five-year term.

Berlusconi prided himself on the length of his tenure; and many Italians hoped a new era of stability had dawned. But Prodi's government was probably doomed from the start. He narrowly defeated Berlusconi's center-right coalition in hard-fought elections last year, gaining only the tiniest of majorities in the Senate, which enfeebled his mandate.

Berlusconi, who could return to office again, could barely contain his glee yesterday. "The government has been clamorously defeated in parliament," Berlusconi said.

Prodi's resignation was a matter of "political, constitutional and ethical" duty, Berlusconi said, adding that the prime minister's handling of foreign policy proved him "incapable" and brought "international humiliation" to Italy.

The specific event that triggered the government crisis was not a confidence vote and did not carry a constitutional requirement that the prime minister step down. It was, instead, a Senate vote to endorse the government's general foreign policy, including maintenance of Italy's 1,800-man mission in Afghanistan.

But Prodi and his foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, had staked their credibility on the measure. The move proved to be a serious miscalculation. The measure fell short of winning Senate majority approval by two votes.

The opposition was skeptical that Prodi would continue in office.

"If he wants to go ahead [and attempt to form a government], good luck," opposition politician Pier Ferdinando Casini told state TV. But, he added, "the country is paying the price."

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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