Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated Italian politics for almost two decades, stepped down as the fallout from his legal woes and contagion from the euro-region’s debt crisis led his government to unravel.
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.
Berlusconi presented his resignation last night to President Giorgio Napolitano after the Parliament in Rome approved measures to spur growth and reduce the euro-area’s second-biggest debt. Napolitano will ask former European Union Competition Commissioner Mario Monti to form a government this evening after talks with political parties that began at 9 a.m.
A chorus of Handel’s “Alleluia,” performed by a few dozen singers and classical musicians, rang out in front of the president’s palace as thousands of Italians poured into downtown Rome to rejoice at the end of Berlusconi’s scandal-marred reign.
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.”
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.”
“We cannot imagine that without Berlusconi our problems are solved, but without Berlusconi we can start working on how to solve the problem,” Rocco Buttiglione, a member of the Union of Centrists and a member of Berlusconi’s previous government, said yesterday in Rome.
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.
Respected former European commissioner Mario Monti remained the top choice to try to steer the country out of its debt woes as the head of a transitional government, but Berlusconi’s allies remained split over whether to support him.
Their opposition wasn’t expected to scuttle Napolitano’s plans to ask Monti to try to form an interim government once Berlusconi resigns, but it could make Monti’s job more difficult.
Napolitano is expected to hold consultations Sunday with all of Italy’s political forces before proceeding with his expected nomination of Monti. Late Saturday, Berlusconi’s party said it would support Monti, albeit with conditions.
The 75-year-old Berlusconi and his family have built a fortune estimated at $9bn (£5.6bn) by US business magazine Forbes.
Born on 29 September 1936, Silvio Berlusconi began his career by selling vacuum cleaners and built a reputation as a crooner in nightclubs and on cruise ships.
In 1993, Mr Berlusconi founded his own political party, Forza Italia – Go Italy – named after a chant used by AC Milan fans.
He lost the 1996 election to the left-wing Romano Prodi but by 2001 he was back in power, in coalition once more with his former partners.
A decade later, having headed the longest-serving Italian government since World War II, he was again defeated by Mr Prodi.
He returned to office in 2008 but the political uncertainty that surrounds him has continued.
He has been accused of embezzlement, tax fraud and false accounting, and attempting to bribe a judge. But he has always denied wrongdoing and has never been definitively convicted.
In 2009, Mr Berlusconi estimated that over 20 years he had made 2,500 court appearances in 106 trials, at a legal cost of 200m euros.
On 15 February, examining judge Cristina Di Censo ordered Mr Berlusconi to stand trial on charges of having sex with Ms El Mahroug – a charge they both deny. He has also been charged with abuse of power in another case related to the same young woman.
Other sex scandals have dogged Mr Berlusconi.
In May 2009, his second wife said she was divorcing him after he was photographed at the 18th birthday party of an aspiring model, Noemi Letizia. She also accused him of selecting a “shamelessly trashy” list of candidates for the European parliament.
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 Sopranos and the cast of Jersey Shore.” [via The Telegraph, BBC, Bloomberg and MSN]