Italy's Government Poised to Fall

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Andreas Solaro / AFP / Getty

Prime Minister Romano Prodi before addressing lawmakers at Montecitorio hall in Rome, January 17, 2007.

Romano Prodi has had a long history of taking his political hits, brushing off his blue suit and getting back up for another day. But the former and current Italian Prime Minister may be about to suffer the knockout blow on a career that stretches back to 1978, when the ambitious economics professor became one of the youngest cabinet ministers in the country's history.

After a key centrist ally yanked support this week from the fragile center-left government, Prodi no longer has a working majority in the Italian Senate. By virtually any reckoning in Italy's complex political arithmetic, this should spell government crisis — and, it would seem, the final bell for the 68-year-old pol, who was resurrected after his last fall from power in Rome by becoming president of the European Commission in 1999. When asked by reporters "How's it going?" just before his address to the Italian Parliament on Tuesday, Prodi declared his faith in his own survival skills. "Very well," he said. "I think I can make it this time, too."

We'll see. He may endure a Wednesday evening confidence vote in the Lower House of Parliament, but unless he receives unexpected support in the Senate from the center-right opposition — led by his nemesis, Silvio Berlusconi — it looks like "ciao-ciao" for Prodi. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano could call for immediate elections, or assign a caretaker government to usher in a new electoral law and other much-needed reforms. Most pundits predict that the next national showdown at the polls will feature Berlusconi against Rome's mayor and leader of the newly formed Democratic party, Walter Veltroni. But already Tuesday, Italian dailies were speculating that Prodi would try to fend off Veltroni and take on Berlusconi again.

However the current drama shakes out, the long-term prospects for Italy's political life appear bleak. Since eking out a win in April 2006 over controversial media mogul Berlusconi, Prodi's reign atop a fractious nine-party coalition has been an example of Italy's endemic political paralysis. Prodi has been busy trying to fend off — and recover from — a half-dozen near-crises since taking office 20 months ago, rather than focus on much-needed reforms to the pension and justice systems. Meanwhile, state air carrier Alitalia bleeds money, and its hoped-for merger with Air France-KLM may now be put back on hold as the political class focuses on fighting among itself.

The long-predicted government collapse was triggered last week, when influence-peddling charges were filed against Justice Minister Clemente Mastella and his wife, who is a local politician in the Southern region of Campania. The minister resigned his cabinet post amid dramatic declarations of his love for his wife and family. After a weekend of back-door maneuvering (and reports that he wouldn't take Prodi's calls), Mastella announced his definitive "basta!", saying his party, tiny but crucial, would no longer support the government.

In a characteristically proud and pedantic speech before Parliament on Tuesday, Prodi challenged his fellow politicians to vote him out publicly rather than cut deals behind closed doors. After the speech, Berlusconi ally Gianfranco Fini saw the speech as evidence that the battered Prime Minister was already starting to dust off his suit. "Prodi opened his [next] electoral campaign today," he said. This time, however, there may be no race left to run.