Opposition Northern League and former Communist senators, all of whom have a burning interest in going to the polls as soon as possible, acted together to torpedo a bill that could have prevented elections being held for three months and possibly even longer.
The surprise vote came less than a week after what is suspected to have been a plot to obstruct early elections by toppling President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro misfired. Mr Scalfaro, who favours fresh elections as soon as constitutionally and practically possible, stayed firmly in his place despite allegations by former secret service officials that he took illegal payments.
One-fifth of Italy's senators and deputies are under investigation, mostly on suspicion of corruption, and many fear that once they lose their parliamentary immunity they will be arrested. Many more, especially from former ruling parties, know that they will not be re-elected and their political careers, perks and privileges are at an end.
A number of proposals and bills have been tabled in parliament which are seen as attempts to prolong its life, even though it no longer reflects the country's political complexion. Christian Democrat senators and deputies are putting pressure on the President not to dissolve parliament, which was elected only last year. But fresh elections appear likely in March or April, although some are pressing for them as early as February.
They cannot be held before the end of the year as new constituencies have to be drawn up and next year's budget approved. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, threatened on Monday that, if the date for elections was not fixed by the end of December, the League would withdraw from parliament and set up a provisional government of Northern Italy.
The defeated bill would have given the vote to more than 2million Italians living abroad. It is a controversial issue, but as the Speaker of the Senate, Giovanni Spadolini, admitted, that is not the reason it was thrown out. It had to be voted by two-thirds of the Senate, or 218 votes, or parliament would have been frozen for three months to allow a possible referendum on the issue.
Instead, Northern League and former Communist senators abstained and it was defeated with 148 votes for, 42 against and 62 abstentions. Many senators were absent.
Representatives of Italian emigrants in the public gallery leapt up furiously, shouting 'shame, shame', and 'venduti' (corrupt). 'We will boycott Italian products,' threatened one. Italy's neo-fascists, who believe they would do well from the expatriate vote, were particularly angry. 'It was a stab in the back,' said their leader in the Chamber, Mirko Tremaglia.
The Interior Minister, Nicola Mancino, and two predecessors, Antonio Gava and Vincenzo Scotti, were questioned yesterday by Rome magistrates on claims by the secret service officials that, among other things, interior ministers were paid illicit 'salaries' of 100m lire ( pounds 42,000) a month from the service's slush fund.Reuse content