Berlusconi bows out but Prodi's problems go on

Silvio Berlusconi has finally agreed to hand in his resignation, allowing a new Italian government to take over. He announced at the weekend that he will call on President Ciampi tomorrow.

Mr Berlusconi had little choice but to resign after new speakers were elected for Italy's two houses of parliament on Saturday.

But it is still unclear when Romano Prodi, the victorious leader of the centre-left coalition in the general election held three weeks ago, will be able to take over. Yesterday he told reporters outside his headquarters in central Rome, "Between today and tomorrow I will see all party leaders.

"We are pushing ahead with the government line-up so that we can be ready when the president sees fit to give me the mandate."

Mr Prodi's problem is no longer Berlusconi's intransigence but the uncertainty clouding the institution of the president. Mr Ciampi, 85, reaches the end of his seven-year term on 18 May. He has said numerous times that he does not want a second term, and if he sticks to that decision a new head of state must be elected by 13 May by the two houses of parliament sitting together. Already the opposing coalitions are canvassing fiercely for their preferred candidates.

It is still possible that Mr Ciampi may bow to pressure and swear Mr Prodi in as prime minister during the next few days, as is clearly Prodi's desire. But Ciampi said immediately after the election that he would leave that task to his successor, and it is not yet clear whether he will change his mind. If he refuses to budge, Italy will remain in a political vacuum until after the middle of May.

With the election of veteran union leader Franco Marini as president (speaker) of the Senate, and unreconstructed communist Fausto Bertinotti as his counterpart in the Chamber of Deputies, Prodi has now cleared the most important hurdles in the way of forming a government.

But the election of Mr Marini, in particular, did not augur well for the durability of his administration.

Thanks to the new electoral system brought in at the last minute by Berlusconi's government, the centre-left obtained the thinnest possible majority in the Senate.

It was thus considered vital for his side to secure a convincing win in the battle to get their candidate elected speaker. But Friday, the first day of the new parliament, produced the unedifying spectacle of the centre-left trying three times to get their man elected having mustered all the halt, lame, sick and very old senators to pack the lobby, and failing three times.

In the final two votes the winning target was 163 votes but both times Mr Marini fell just short, thanks to ballots written not "Franco Marini" but "Francesco Marini." The opposition contested the ballots and the temporary speaker twice annulled the vote.

The supposition of commentators was that the ballots in question were deliberately written with an incorrect name by semi-detached members of the centre-left coalition, interested in causing mischief and delays even before the government has taken office. The marathon sitting of the Senate lasted until after 1am on Saturday morning without reaching a conclusion.

Mr Marini was finally elected on Saturday, when a simple majority was sufficient, but Friday's bizarre proceedings left commentators doubting whether Mr Prodi would be able to enforce coalition discipline in the Senate sufficiently to get legislation passed and win votes of confidence.

Mr Berlusconi and his coalition will not give them relief. "Berlusconi will pursue them mercilessly, not only in parliament but also in the country," promised Gianfranco Rotondi, a Berlusconi ally, yesterday.

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