Uproar in Senate as Berlusconi bids for power

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The Independent Online

Italy's President has started crisis talks to rescue the country from political limbo after the downfall of the country's 61st post-war government. But the opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi is pressing for snap elections, which opinion polls suggest would return him to power.

The end of Romano Prodi's second term as prime minister left Italians brooding gloomily on the spectacle provided by their politicians as another period of limbo began.

When the Christian Democrat Nuccio Cusumano told the house that he had decided to vote for Mr Prodi, against the party line, a colleague yelled: "Queer, cuckold, whore, toilet, piece of shit," and had to be held back from assaulting the senator. Another party member spat in his face, whereupon the defector fainted and was carried out on a stretcher.

When Mr Prodi's defeat was announced, one opposition senator stuffed his mouth with mortadella, a type of fatty sausage from Bologna (and Romano Prodi's nickname); another popped a bottle of champagne, causing the speaker to call out angrily: "This is not a pub, put it away!"

All part of the tapestry of Italian life, but few Italians yesterday were amused as President Giorgio Napolitano began his painstakingly democratic consultations on what to do next. Over the next three days (excepting Sunday, which is of course a holiday, even in a crisis) Mr Napolitano will meet members of all the main political groupings and see whether he can persuade them to accept his preferred idea that Mr Prodi's government should be followed by a fixed period of "technical" government designed to give Italy a new electoral system. The present system was enacted by Mr Berlusconi's government in 2005 and was widely seen at the time as a deliberate bid to sabotage a future centre-left government.

If that was indeed its aim, it worked very well. In place of the largely majoritarian system in place since 1993, which produced the present situation of bipolarism, Mr Berlusconi substituted an extreme version of proportional representation, setting the bar for representation in parliament at just 2 per cent, compared to five per cent in Germany. He prevented complete immobilism by giving the winning coalition a "prize" of extra seats in the lower house – but not in the Senate. The result was that Mr Prodi's government was constantly on the verge of collapse, with a majority of just two.

Mr Berlusconi and his allies yesterday continued to demand immediate elections under the present electoral system, even though the man who designed it, the senior Northern League politician Roberto Calderoli, has himself described it as a porcata, a load of rubbish.

Mr Prodi, who said that he had "no regrets", rejected the idea that he might head an interim government. "If you lose in Parliament," he said, "even by a single vote, it means that this scheme has lost. I'm going off to be grandad."