How An Italian Government Falls

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Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Italian premier Romano Prodi looks on amongst government representatives, prior to a confidence vote in the Senate.

This is how an Italian government ends. One-by-one, each Senator was required to say out loud whether he or she wanted the center-left government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi to stand or fall. It was the final evening act in a day's worth of high and low drama in the ornate chambers of the Italian Senate on Thursday. There were bombastic speeches by party members defying their leaders' orders on which way to vote. Former Justice Minister Clemente Mastella, who'd brought on the government crisis by yanking his support from Prodi, choked up as he recited a Pablo Neruda poem. One lawmaker was accused of spitting at another, as he screamed "traitor!", "piece of merda!" and made the gesture of firing a gun. The targeted Senator then duly fainted (or feigned a fainting) in his soft chamber chair. Finally, just after the votes were counted, victorious center-right lawmakers uncorked Spumanti directly on the Senate floor. "Take them away!," implored Senate President Franco Marini, pounding his gavel as the bubbly spilled out of the bottles onto the carpet. "This isn't a tavern here!" The final tally after nearly an hour: 161-156 to bring down the coalition, 20 months after Prodi eked out a victory over his perennial nemesis Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial TV mogul-turned-politico. It was all good theater, but yet another sign that Italy's political system is in serious disrepair.

It had appeared evident to most that Prodi had lost his slim working majority in the Senate on Monday when Mastella announced that he was pulling out of the coalition following a magistrate's filing of influence-peddling charges against him and his local politician wife. Most expected Prodi to promptly submit his resignation, but the sometimes stubborn 68-year-old former European Union president challenged his fellow lawmakers to the individual oral vote on Thursday. After the vote, Prodi submitted his resignation to President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano, who now has the task of either searching for Parliamentary support for a bipartisan caretaker government or calling snap elections. Berlusconi, his eyes on a chance to return to the Prime Minister's office, has demanded an immediate election.

Having forced the situation to a vote probably makes it more difficult for Napolitano to find consensus for a caretaker government to usher in a badly needed electoral reform before going back to the polls. A vote without altering the current system will most likely produce a similary fragile majority, regardless of which side wins. Indeed Prodi was on the verge of a government crisis for nearly his entire 20-month reign. The former economics professor had similarly been pushed from power in 1998, after having beaten Berlusconi two years earlier.

Most expect that the next showdown at the polls will feature Berlusconi and Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, who was Prodi's No. 2 back in 1996-98 administration but is no longer close in the same camp. There are reports that Prodi will team up with small parties from the far left to try to stave off Veltroni's rise, which would no doubt bring on more nasty infighting. Many believe that a caretaker government made up of moderates from both center-left and center-right is necessary to bring about the reform necessary to bring more stability to the political system. Such an interim affair would probably turn out to be arcane, and painfully boring. That may be just what the country needs.