April 29, 2006

Berlusconi to quit and make way for Prodi

By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
said on Saturday he would resign, ending three weeks of
wrangling over a narrow election defeat and clearing the
political decks for Romano Prodi to take power.

Berlusconi would hand in his resignation to President Carlo
Azeglio Ciampi on Tuesday after a scheduled cabinet meeting,
officials said.

He had previously alleged election fraud and had refused to
formally concede defeat after the April 9-10 polls.

Prodi's centre-left coalition, ranging from communists to
centrist Roman Catholics, won the elections by the smallest
margin in modern Italian history.

On paper his coalition has only a two-seat majority in the
upper house of parliament, the Senate, although it should also
be able to count on the support of several life-senators who
are appointed by the president, not elected.

While waiting for Berlusconi to step down, Prodi has been
working with his partners to put together a cabinet team that
will have to find quick remedies for Italy's struggling economy
and wayward public finances.


Prodi managed to get his candidate elected speaker of the
Senate at the fourth attempt on Saturday, but the drawn-out
vote showed coalition cracks that bode ill for future

The fact that it took four ballots to elect Franco Marini
prompted many commentators to warn the slimness of Prodi's
centre-left majority may not suffice to keep him in power long.

"The Prodi government, if it ever sees the light of day,
will have to get used to living with an abacus in its hands,"
the leftist La Repubblica newspaper said after the coalition
failed to unite round Marini in the first three votes.

"If the coalition doesn't close ranks it seriously risks
committing suicide."

Prodi made light of the problems ahead after his man
finally clinched victory with 165 votes in the 322-seat Senate,
against 156 for the center right's candidate, 87-year-old elder
statesman Giulio Andreotti.

"Today we have a positive situation and I believe the
legislature can begin well," Prodi told reporters. "In four
hours, everything has fallen into place."

Earlier on Saturday, veteran communist leader Fausto
Bertinotti, was elected president of the lower house, the
Chamber of Deputies, where Prodi's majority is bigger.

Ciampi would normally have the task of asking Prodi to form
a government, but his term of office expires in mid-May and he
has signaled the job should fall to his successor. Prodi would
like to be nominated before then.

(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer, Giselda Vagnoni,
Paolo Biondi and Roberto Landucci in Rome)