Italy's opposition presented a no-confidence motion against Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Friday, setting the stage for a showdown in parliament that could spell the end of the government.
The opposition Democratic Party and the allied Italy of Values party co-sponsored the motion in the lower Chamber of Deputies. No date has been set for it to be discussed.
Berlusconi's government has been in a tailspin for months, fueled most recently by allegations of his involvement with prostitutes and a 17-year-old Moroccan girl. But the political crisis accelerated over the weekend when his estranged ally Gianfranco Fini formally called on him to resign and remake a strengthened coalition.
The no-confidence motion will now force Fini and his allies, whose support is crucial to the premier, to choose whether to support him or bring the government down.
Democratic Party leader Pierlugi Bersani urged Fini and his allied lawmakers to vote with the opposition, saying: "I would like to believe that all those who think that this phase is finished be coherent and this is the occasion to show it."
Italy's center-left opposition has to date been unable to capitalize on mounting dissatisfaction with Berlusconi's efforts to pass a law that would spare him and other top office holders from prosecution while in office.
But the 74-year-old Berlusconi's dalliances with younger women have now cost him support from some conservative supporters and appear to have been the final straw that prompted Fini to issue his weekend ultimatum: resign or face the consequences.
Berlusconi still has an out that would keep him in power: In Italy's Byzantine politics, prime ministers can resign, and have done so, only to receive a new mandate with a strengthened coalition. Berlusconi himself did that during his previous stint in power from 2001 to 2006.
Fini had said he was willing to be in an alliance with Berlusconi to spare Italy early elections but that the premier had to resign and revise the government and present a new legislative agenda that includes his proposals to relaunch the economy and change Italy's electoral law.
It wasn't clear if faced with an impending no-confidence motion, Berlusconi would re-evaluate Fini's offer. Ignazio La Russa, Berlusconi's defense minister and party coordinator, said Friday the government would consider broadening the coalition to other parties — a hint that a resignation and reformed government might still be on the table.
"If this isn't possible, the only alternative to the government headed by Berlusconi is to give voters their voice again," La Russa said.
Berlusconi has said early elections would be the last thing Italy needs as it grapples with an economic crisis.
Berlusconi's People of Liberties party responded to the no-confidence motion with a motion of its own in the Senate expressing support for the premier and his agenda.