Leading article: Let Mr Prodi prepare for government

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'About time, too" is the only appropriate response to the news that Silvio Berlusconi will finally resign today as Italy's Prime Minister. The election three weeks ago was a cliff-hanger. It showed Italy politically split in two. But it was not so close that there was no winner. Romano Prodi, a former president of the European Commission, has a narrow majority in both houses of the Italian parliament.

By refusing to concede defeat and manoeuvring to keep his job, Mr Berlusconi demonstrated not only that he was an ungracious loser, but that his respect for the democratic process left much to be desired. A keen sense of competitiveness may be part and parcel of being a successful politician, but Mr Berlusconi - like Gerhard Schröder last year in Germany - surely took competitiveness too far. He should have conceded as soon as Italy's Supreme Court rejected his challenge. In the end, Mr Berlusconi gave way only after all his machinations had failed to secure the election of his ally, Giulio Andreotti, as Speaker of the Senate. Now, Mr Prodi 's centre-left alliance not only has majorities in both houses of Parliament, but the allegiance of the two speakers as well. In theory, this should be enough for him to govern.

But even if Mr Berlusconi does resign today, Mr Prodi is still not home and dry as Prime Minister. Italy's outgoing President, Carlo Ciampi, had said that he would leave it to his successor to nominate the next head of government. This would entail a further delay of at least two weeks, and provide Mr Berlusconi with ample opportunity to make mischief.

Yesterday there were signs that Mr Ciampi might be persuaded to reconsider and invite Mr Prodi to form a government before he leaves the presidency. This would be the preferable course. With the long election campaign, the disputed result, and then Mr Berlusconi's refusal to concede, Italy's politics have been on hold for too long. Thanks in part to Mr Berlusconi's longevity in office, the absence of a government is no longer Italy's natural state.

Italy has pressing problems, which include a large budget deficit and lack of growth, not to speak of the persistent wealth gap between north and south. The sooner Mr Prodi is asked to form a government, the sooner it will be apparent whether his parliamentary majorities are sufficient to pass legislation and whether his multifarious alliance can hold.

If the fourth-round victory for Mr Prodi's candidate in the voting for Senate Speaker is anything to go by, the prospects for his coalition are difficult, but by no means hopeless. In so many ways the antithesis of Silvio Berlusconi, Romano Prodi deserves the chance to show what he can do.