Italy races to form new government

President begins talks to appoint an emergency government following Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation.

Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
  Berlusconi’s final term has been marred by sex scandals and criminal charges [Al Jazeera]

Italy’s head of state has begun talks to appoint an emergency government to succeed outgoing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and handle a crisis that has brought the eurozone’s third largest economy to the brink of financial disaster.

Just a few hours after central Rome was still echoing with street festivities over Berlusconi’s departure, Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, met the leaders of two houses of parliament on Sunday.

The consultations will continue until about 17:00 GMT, after which Napolitano is expected to ask former European Commissioner Mario Monti to try to form a government of technocrats in time for the opening of markets on Monday.

Pietro Paganini, a political commentator, told Al Jazeera that Berlusconi had “certainly not left behind an attractive legacy”.

“Hopefully a new government will first give Italy credibility, which is what the markets demand.”

Berlusconi faced a chorus of jeers and insults as he was driven to the Quirinale Palace to hand his resignation to Napolitano.

Crowds built up steadily after parliament passed a new budget law in the late afternoon on Saturday, clearing the way for Berlusconi to fulfil a pledge to resign after he failed to secure a majority in a crucial vote on Tuesday.

Senator for Life

Following weeks of political uncertainty and calls from international partners for action to control its towering public debt, Italy’s borrowing costs soared to unmanageable levels last week, threatening a Europe-wide financial meltdown.

Monti, named as Senator for Life last week, met Mario Draghi, the European central bank president, and politicians from various parties on Saturday as preparations for a transition began even before Berlusconi stepped down.

He has not so far been named officially but he has received the backing of the main opposition groups and the conditional acceptance of Berlusconi’s centre-right PDL after objections from several factions in the party were overcome.

 Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
 Silvio Berlusconi’s legacy of controversy

“In the end, a sense of responsibility prevailed,” said Mario Baccini, a PDL legislator. He said the PDL would support a Monti government as long as it stuck to reforms agreed by the outgoing government with the European Union.

With the next elections not due until 2013, a government of technocrats could have about 18 months to pass painful economic reforms but will need to secure the backing of a majority in parliament and could fall before then.

Italy came close to a full scale financial emergency this week after yields on 10-year bonds soared over 7.6 per cent, levels which forced Ireland, Portugal and Greece to seek an international bailout.

With public debt of more than 120 per cent of gross domestic product and more than a decade of anaemic economic growth behind it, Italy is at the heart of the eurozone debt crisis and would be too big for the bloc to bail out.

Financial markets have backed a Monti government and as prospects of Berlusconi going became firmer last week, yields dropped below the critical seven per cent level.

“Even though Berlusconi has obviously made a massive imprint on Italy, no one here is really sad to see him go,” Al Jazeera’s Barbara Serra reported from Rome, where hundreds of Italians had gathered to show their approval of the new political changes.

While he became Italy’s longest-serving post-war prime minister, Berlusconi’s three stints as the leader were tainted by corruption trials and accusations that he used his political power to help his business interests.

Under pressure

It now falls to Berlusconi’s successor to try to reassure markets that a new government will be able to control spending and pass the kind of reforms to pensions, public service and labour markets that his government was unable to implement.

The responsibility falls on Monti to reassure markets that a new government will be able to control spending [EPA]

A technical government under Monti would avoid the need for a long and divisive election campaign, unsettling markets further, but its future will depend on maintaining the support of parliament.

A tough negotiator with a record of taking on powerful corporate interests as European Competition Commissioner, Monti will have to navigate the treacherous waters of Italian politics to survive.

On the left, possible reforms such as an increase in the pension age or easier hiring and firing rules could prompt strong opposition from unions once the elation of Berlusconi’s departure has passed.

But the threat could be at least as great from the centre-right with Berlusconi’s old Northern League coalition partners declaring they will oppose a Monti-led government and many in the PDL also harbouring deep reservations.

In a potentially ominous sign of the dangers that may face a Monti government, Italian news agencies reported that Berlusconi had told party colleagues that they would control the future of a new administration.

“We can pull the plug whenever we want,” he was quoted as telling party allies.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies