Prodi wins Senate vote but gov't remains fragile

Prodi quit last week but the Italian president asked him to stay on and put his Cabinet to new confidence votes in parliament.

prodi 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
prodi 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Italian Premier Romano Prodi kept his fractious center-left coalition together to win a confidence vote in the Senate, ensuring the immediate survival of his nine-month-old government. "I am very satisfied," Prodi said Wednesday, minutes after the 162-157 vote in the upper house of parliament. One of his Cabinet ministers, Clemente Mastella, said "the government is like the Tower of Pisa - it leans but it doesn't fall." Prodi resigned last week after a defeat in the Senate on the government's foreign policy. But the Italian president had asked him to stay on and put his Cabinet to new confidence votes in parliament. The premier faced his toughest test in the Senate, as the upper chamber is almost evenly split between the ruling center-left and the conservative opposition, and any defections could have swung the vote. On Friday, Prodi faces a confidence vote in the lower house, where he has a comfortable majority and is certain to win. Prodi asked for the senators' support in a non-confrontational speech meant to woo both Christian Democrats and far leftists in his often-divided coalition. "The coalition has reached a strong, cohesive agreement," Prodi told the Senate shortly before voting began. "We have the firm intention of moving forward." Coalition allies have put differences aside, at least momentarily, and vowed to support the premier - largely to avert a return to power of their archenemy, conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi. A centrist senator who is a former Berlusconi ally, an independent senator elected abroad and at least four of seven honorary senators appointed for life also assured their support to the government. If the government had lost the vote of confidence, it would have had to resign - which might have meant early elections just as opinion polls are showing that the conservatives would likely win. But even as the government won the vote, its long-term stability is doubtful. Prodi narrowly defeated Berlusconi in April elections, ousting the conservatives after five years in office. But between the Senate's minimal majority and a divided coalition behind him, the premier has had a hard time mustering the necessary support for key policies. Last week, in the parliamentary defeat that led Prodi to resign, the Senate failed to endorse the government's guidelines in foreign policy, including its commitment to keep 1,800 Italian troops in Afghanistan. The defeat was blamed on defections from far leftists, as well as opposition by some life senators. In a sign of continuing difficulties for Prodi, some coalition senators said that while they supported the government in the confidence vote, they maintained their opposition to the country's military presence in Afghanistan and would vote against an upcoming measure to refinance the mission there. "Today is the day of hypocrisy," said Renato Schifani, Senate whip for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. "Some senators who will give their vote of confidence today will vote against the government tomorrow." Schifani said that with such deep differences, the government was "born dead." A poll published Wednesday in the country's largest daily, Corriere della Sera, said that almost 40 percent of Italians thought the government would last only a few more months, even if it won the confidence vote. The poll by the ISPO institute had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. The government's five-year mandate expires in 2011. Prodi's speech to the Senate on Tuesday reflected the fragility of his leadership. The premier acknowledged deep differences within his coalition and stayed away from controversial themes that have created tensions in the past. Earlier, Prodi had boiled down a 281-page electoral program to a 12-point plan that the premier said would be "nonnegotiable" and would serve as the government's new platform. On Wednesday, the premier did touch upon a controversial theme - a government proposal to legally recognize unmarried couples. Prodi sought to smooth over tensions by saying that the government had "exhausted its duty" by proposing the legislation, and that it was now up to parliament to "draft a law on which there can be ample agreement."