War on terror brings down Prodi in Italy

Posted in Europe | 22-Feb-07 | Author: Ian Fisher| Source: International Herald Tribune

Italian senators Wednesday after a government setback when two members of the Prodi coalition abstained.

ROME: The fragile government of Italy snapped suddenly Wednesday, crumbling under the weight of its own internal divisions, as well as a broader skepticism in Europe about its role in the worldwide fight against terrorism.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi, in office just nine months, submitted his resignation Wednesday evening after his governing coalition lost a key vote in the Senate on Italian foreign policy.

Two of his own far-left coalition members abstained amid tensions over whether Italy should continue to provide troops to Afghanistan and over Prodi's support of an expansion of an American military base in Vicenza, in northern Italy.

With only a razor-thin majority, the abstentions killed the measure, aimed at gaining the Senate's support of Italy's foreign policy, and, perhaps unexpectedly, doomed the government.

"I can't in any way give my vote to this government with this foreign policy," said Fernando Rossi, a senator from the Italian Communist Party and one of the dissenters.

The vote came the same day that Britain announced a substantial reduction of its troops in southern Iraq, and a week after a European parliamentary committee issued a strong report criticizing secret American flights in Europe of terror suspects.

But the government's collapse also reflected its own inherent weaknesses, possibly signaling that chronic political instability in Italy may be coming out of remission. In a nation that has had about 60 governments since World War II, Prodi has presided uneasily over a coalition of nine very different parties, ranging from moderate Catholics to Communists.

"It's very bad," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor at the University of Florence and an expert of electoral law. "We still have to come to terms with a working political system. We do not have a working political system."

There are many scenarios for what comes next — and one of the possibilities, if not immediately likely, is a return to power of Silvio Berlusconi, whom Prodi defeated in elections last year.

As Prodi's ministers met throughout the afternoon to discuss how to go forward, Berlusconi's supporters rallied outside the seat of government, Palazzo Chigi, waving banners and demanding that the government step aside.

"The country has been exposed, by a majority that isn't and by an incompetent government that has rejected parliamentary dialogue — a grave international humiliation," Berlusconi said.

For a return to power of Berlusconi, the leader of the center-right opposition, new elections would have to be held — and at the moment, that seems several steps in the future.

After accepting Prodi's resignation, Giorgio Napolitano, the president, will begin on Thursday to consult with political parties and will ask one of them to try to form a government.

Many political experts said they believed that Prodi would be given a chance to shuffle his cabinet in a way that would satisfy the same grouping of parties already in the government. Then he would call for a confidence vote in Parliament.

But many experts noted that such a government would remain weak, with the deep and real splits over Afghanistan and the U.S. base unresolved.

"Something has broken," said Franco Pavoncello, the president of John Cabot University in Rome and a political scientist. "This vote and the reaction of the government has created damage to Prodi's ability to last."

In theory, the prime minister's term lasts five years, but in the tumult of Italian politics, Berlusconi is the only prime minister to have endured that long. As such, even many of his detractors give him credit for imbuing the office with an unaccustomed stability.

While the government's weakness made it liable to fall at any moment, its collapse on Wednesday came as a surprise. For months the government has been bickering internally — and weathering attacks by Berlusconi and other opposition leaders — over issues ranging from the budget to a proposed law giving rights to unmarried couples.

But foreign policy remained a particular weak spot. Essentially, Prodi and his ministers have sought to walk a difficult line, echoing much of the skepticism in Europe about President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq while maintaining Italy's traditionally strong ties with America.

The government's far-left members, however, have strongly resisted the presence of nearly 2,000 Italian troops in Afghanistan. And last weekend, tens of thousands of people rallied against the expansion of the American-staffed NATO base in Vicenza, which Prodi's government reluctantly supported.

The splits grew deeper, and on Tuesday in Spain, the Italian foreign minister, Massismo D'Alema, himself a former prime minister, called for the Senate to endorse Italy's foreign policy. If it did not, he said, the government should "go home," or step down.

In a long and impassioned speech before the vote on Wednesday, D'Alema strongly defended his government's position on Afghanistan and on the Vicenza base, in terms that he hoped would win the support of the left.

"There is a profound difference between the military operations in Afghanistan, approved by the United Nations, and those in Iraq," he said in the speech.

He added that the support of expanding the Vicenza base was essential to maintain good relations with the United States.

In the end, the government needed 160 votes, but got only 158 with the two abstentions. Opposition senators roared at the result, shouting, "Resign! Resign!"