As President of the Italian Senate, Franco Marini has had some trying days lately. Last week he had to restore order in the august Senate chambers when the center-right opposition exploded in celebration after Romano Prodi's center-left government lost a decisive confidence vote, sealing its collapse. When two members of the National Alliance party popped bottles of spumante and waved slices of mortadella to mock Prodi nicknamed "Mortadella" for his presumed resemblance to the pink sausage popular in his hometown of Bologna the white-haired, pipe-smoking Senate President pounded his gavel and ordered Senate guards to immediately remove the victuals. "This isn't a tavern here!" he barked.
That was nothing compared to the task that faces Marini now: to find a working majority for a transitional government. On Wednesday Italian President Giorgio Napolitano asked Marini to attempt to form a government with a limited mandate to enact much needed electoral reform. To fulfil that charge and become interim prime minister, the 74-year-old centrist has had to beg opposition members to join him in a new, temporary working majority. They don't appear to be so disposed, and by Friday afternoon, all signs pointed to failure.
Opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi refused to budge from his call for immediate elections, convinced that a quick vote will return him to the Prime Minister's office for a third time. Though not all his allies are as convinced of the wisdom of a quick vote, they don't want to damage their own future by going against him. Critics argue that even if the billionaire leader wins, under the current electoral law, he will lack the necessary leverage to get much done, just as Prodi's government did.
One center-left political insider in Rome told TIME that he now predicts that Italians will return to the polls in April. Refounded Communist leader Fausto Bertinotti, who had worked hand-in-hand with Marini as Lower House Speaker these past two years, told reporters Friday that he too expects early elections. Even a close Marini ally, centrist Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said he is losing hope. "Arriving at a (positive) result is very difficult," he said. "Obviously we'd like it, but it's a very, very tight passage."
The center-left is scrambling to adjust. The largest party in the outgoing coalition, the Democrats, headed by Rome mayor Walter Veltroni, is trying to lure votes by proposing an electoral system that, like Germany's, would limit the influence of tiny parties. But such parties are legion in Italy, and the scheme frightens many of them. Ex Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema has declared that if Parliament can't pass an electoral reform law, the issue should be put to the people in a national referendum.
Marini is considered well-liked and well-connected in certain quarters of the center-right. He also has several decades of high-stakes union experience to tap into during negotiations. Through the weekend, private consultations will continue with leaders of parties and other interested power players, including industrialists and union chiefs, hoping to convince enough members to join in a majority to rewrite the electoral law (with a vote to follow several months later). "There is still a small margin for success," the would-be Prime Minister announced. "I see it. And for this we must see it through." But that won't happen without at least the tacit acquiescence of Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps Marini's most important meeting Friday was with neither a Senator nor Member of Parliament. It was with Gianni Letta, Berlusconi's right-hand man.