Silvio Berlusconi finally resigns as Italy's prime minister, to cheers from supporters and jeers from foes
Silvio Berlusconi has resigned as Italy's longest-serving post-war prime minister, bringing to an end a tumultuous, 17-year political career which was marred by sex scandals, corruption allegations and gaffes on the international stage.
Silvio Berlusconi leaves the lower house of the Parliament in Rome Photo: REUTERS
By Nick Squires, Rome
8:44PM GMT 12 Nov 2011
His departure came hours after the country's lower house of parliament approved, by a margin of 380 votes to 26, an urgently-needed package of economic reforms designed to tackle the country's €1.9 trillion debt, revive its sluggish economy and prevent it from going the way of Greece.
After the vote, the 75-year-old billionaire media baron held a final meeting with his cabinet, and was then driven home to his official residence. There he consulted with party advisers, the final step before going to the presidential palace, on Rome's Quirinale Hill, where he gave his resignation to Italy's 86-year-old president, Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist.
The president released a statement saying that consultations on forming a new government would start on Sunday.
Mr Berlusconi’s conservative PDL party said it was willing to accept an emergency government run by Mario Monti, an economist and former European Commissioner, so long as it kept to a tight remit of implementing economic reforms.
The party also said it wanted the emergency government to be limited to a fixed term and demanded that it be consulted over the formation of a new cabinet. It was not immediately clear whether Mr Monti would be willing to accept such stringent conditions.
Earlier a crowd of about 5,000 people erupted into jeers and boos when Mr Berlusconi arrived at the palace in a cavalcade of cars with a police motorcycle escort shortly before 8pm GMT.
They shouted "mafioso" and "buffoon" as the prime minister swept into the main entrance of the building.
Some protesters shouted, "You should die" and "Silvio, **** off."
At one point a small crowd of choral singers sang "Hallelujah" in the cobbled piazza outside the palace.
The austerity package, intended to restore market confidence and stop debt costs from spiralling out of control, had already been passed by the Senate, the upper house, on Friday, and Mr Berlusconi had promised earlier in the week to step down as soon as the reforms were approved by MPs.
As he appeared in the chamber before the vote, his last as prime minister, Mr Berlusconi was given a standing ovation by MPs of his own PDL party, who chanted "Silvio, Silvio, Silvio" in their own acknowledgement of his formidable contribution to Italian public life.
Despite the accusations that his colourful personality and lifestyle had brought Italy into international disrepute, he had served as prime minister on three separate occasions and remains the only one to have completed a full term in office, from 2001 to 2006.
Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior member of Mr Berlusconi's party, said he had not been constitutionally required to resign as prime minister and thanked him for all the work for Italy.
"To Berlusconi, who is resigning even though he is not obliged to do so, we express great thanks for all that he has done in these years, during which he suffered uncivil attacks."
Outside parliament, however, where thousands of Italians had gathered – blocking traffic and carrying Italian flags – there were angry chants of "thief, go home".
At least two ministers were jeered when they entered Mr Berlusconi's private residence, Palazzo Grazioli, and a crowd waved placards reading "Game Over" and "Bye Bye Silvio".
As he left his residence and prepared to head to the presidential palace, Mr Berlusconi told aides that the chants of “thief” and “buffoon” left him “deeply embittered”, according to Italian news reports.
Mr Berlusconi's departure came after the European Union and world leaders called for Italy to form a new government able to tackle the country's spiralling debt, amid fears that a default could trigger a global financial meltdown.
He bowed to intense pressure from international bond markets as well as the realisation that with the desertion of once-loyal MPs, he no longer had a parliamentary majority.
A charismatic but deeply divisive figure, he was accused by his opponents of making Italy a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.
Critics said he spent more time protecting himself from criminal investigations and entertaining young starlets at his notorious "bunga bunga" parties than governing the country.
Even with his departure, Italy faces a period of deep uncertainty, with President Napolitano now confronting the daunting task of stitching together an emergency government of technocrats and politicians.
There is strong pressure for the new administration to be formed by Monday morning at the latest, in time for the opening of the financial markets.
Mr Napolitano appealed for MPs to put the good of the country ahead of short-term, local interests - an indirect appeal to members of Mr Berlusconi's party and the allied Northern League to work with the new government.
There was uncertainty before the PDL statement and two other candidates for prime minister were being discussed: Angelino Alfano, Mr Berlusconi's former justice minister, and Lamberto Dini, a former Bank of Italy official who headed a similar technocrat government during an earlier phase of political paralysis in the 1990s.
Italy would be "playing with fire" if it proved unable to form a new government under Mr Monti and give him a clear mandate to enact the reforms, Corriere della Sera said in a front page editorial.
Business leaders and most of the country's big unions launched a joint appeal for Mr Monti to be made the new prime minister in order to restore confidence in Italy's ability to cut its debt and calm the euro zone crisis.
"By Monday Italy must have a new emergency government, with a respected leader and the broadest possible consensus in parliament," their statement said.
But there are serious concerns that even if a Monti government can be formed, it could be brought down within months by political infighting and an inability to push through the deeply unpopular reforms, which have been demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
"Five, six months at the most," La Stampa, a respected national newspaper, said in assessing the likely longevity of the administration.
Before the vote, Mr Berlusconi invited Mr Monti for a working lunch at his palazzo in central Rome, suggesting that he was ready to throw his support behind the economist, who is currently head of one of Italy's most prestigious universities.
But the MP Mr Cicchitto said many colleagues were yet to decide whether to back a Monti government.
"We need to see the political framework and know something about the programme and makeup of the government," he said.
Mara Carfagna, a former glamour model who Mr Berlusconi famously appointed as his minister for equal opportunities, said: "There's still a lot of confusion. The situation is complicated. Europe and the world are expecting immediate measures."
Prof Christopher Duggan, an expert on Italian politics and history from Reading University, said: "Monti is not a seasoned politician and navigating the reefs and shoals of the Italian parliament is never easy, even in ordinary conditions."
A new government will mark a fresh start for Italy after three years under Mr Berlusconi government in which the prime minister was embroiled in corruption trials and accused of paying for sex with a teenage exotic dancer nicknamed "Ruby the Heart Stealer".
Mr Monti is serious, diligent and hard-working – the antithesis of Mr Berlusconi, commentators said.
"He bears no resemblance to the stereotypes that many of us, and our leaders, have fostered," Beppe Severgnini, one of the country's best known columnists, wrote yesterday.
"He will confound the opinion of those who have decided, in Britain and the United States, that we Italians are all variations of The Sopranosand the cast of Jersey Shore."