In a dramatic sequence of events even by Italian standards, Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned last month after his allies defected. Attempts to set up an interim government failed and Berlusconi’s calls for an immediate election prevailed. Berlusconi, the 71-year-old owner of AC Milan soccer club, resisted President Giorgio Napolitano’s bid for cross-party support to reform the messy election rules before a new vote.
It is my regret today to have to call voters back to polling booths without those reforms having been approved, said Napolitano after he and Prodi, now caretaker premier, signed a decree dissolving parliament three years ahead of schedule. The cabinet met afterwards to set the date for voting as April 13-14, near local elections which could be brought forward to reduce the cost and inconvenience , Prodi said.
Berlusconi, the Forza Italia leader who has been prime minister twice before, is consistently ahead of Prodi’s fragmented center left in opinion polls, the gap extending to as much as 16 points. His rival will be Rome’s 52-year-old mayor Walter Veltroni, who had supported an interim government to change voting rules that were widely blamed for the fragility of Prodi’s government, Italy’s 61st since World War II. While parliament has been dissolved about nine times before, only one has been shorter-lived than the 20-month legislature that gave Prodi such a rough ride. The 68-year-old former European Commission president, twice victorious over Berlusconi in elections and twice brought down by fickle allies -- communists in 1998, now a Catholic party -- confirmed he would not be running for re-election. While industry urges politicians to bury their differences and work in the country’s interests at a time when business and consumer confidence has sunk, growth is cooling and inflation is on the rise, parties were already maneuvering for the election. Berlusconi’s center-right coalition was trying to recruit the small Catholic party whose defection sank Prodi, while the hard left, offended at Veltroni’s decision that his Democratic Party would run alone, considered fielding their own candidate.