Italian Premier Romano Prodi faced mounting pressure Wednesday to resign even before a crucial parliamentary confidence vote, as prospects dimmed that his 20-month center-left coalition could survive the loss of a crucial ally.
The premier met Wednesday with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who as head of state would decide how to proceed were Prodi to resign, the president's office said. No details of the meeting were immediately released.
The Italian news agency ANSA reported that Napolitano had requested the meeting — which was held hours before the first of two scheduled confidence votes — to suggest that Prodi abandon his plans to put his government to a vote Thursday in the Senate, the upper house where his forces no longer have a majority.
Wednesday's confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, was unlikely to bring defeat for the governing coalition, since Prodi's forces hold a comfortable majority there even without the defecting Christian Democrats.
But all eyes would be on Thursday's Senate vote, where even with the support of the Christian Democrats his coalition held only a one-seat majority. Without them, on paper, the coalition lacks a majority.
Worried about the Senate vote, Prodi's allies were pressing him Wednesday to resign after the chamber confidence vote, so that his expected victory there would mean he resigned by choice and not because he was required to do so. He would be forced to resign if he lost in the upper chamber.
Napolitano could accept a Prodi resignation, dissolve Parliament and call early elections. But after political consultations, he could also ask someone to try to form another government with backing of the existing Parliament. That person could be Prodi, another center-left leader or a technocrat, who could then lead the country until a new electoral law can be passed and a general election scheduled.
"That's the prospect if Prodi doesn't get burned with the 'no' from the Senate," said Giovanni Russo Spena, a Communist leader in the Senate, the Apcom news agency reported.
Berlusconi urges quick resignation
Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who has pressed for a quick election, said Prodi would do best by resigning immediately, although he said the current government should remain in place to plan for new elections.
"I think that with the disappearance of the majority, the most logical thing would be that this government continues just for normal administration until the next elections, elections in the very near future," Berlusconi said.
Prodi's government has been shaky from the start, but it was thrown into turmoil Monday after the UDEUR Christian democratic party led by former Justice Minister Clemente Mastella announced it was withdrawing its support.
Prodi said Tuesday he would seek confidence votes in both houses of Parliament, gambling that he could be rescued by some of the seven senators appointed for life or that his often-rebellious allies would close ranks and back him for fear that early elections would bring back Berlusconi, whom Prodi defeated in April 2006.
But one senator, Domenico Fisichella — whose vote was seen as crucial for Prodi — made clear Wednesday that the premier no longer had his support.
Opinion polls have shown Prodi's popularity slipping over the past year.
Electoral changes due?
Some in Berlusconi's conservative bloc are reluctant to sink Prodi before Parliament can change Italy's electoral system, which is widely blamed for the country's chronic political instability.
The proportional representation system helps tiny parties have a good deal of weight in fragile coalitions.
Napolitano has said in the past he wants the electoral law reformed before any new election.
Mastella resigned last week as justice minister after he and his wife, a senior official in the southern Campania region, were placed under investigation in a corruption probe. The couple have denied wrongdoing.
Mastella pulled his small party away, complaining that some coalition partners had not shown him sufficient solidarity amid the scandal.