ITALIAN prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has resigned after parliament’s lower chamber passed European-demanded reforms, ending a 17-year political era and setting in motion a transition aimed at bringing the country back from the brink of economic crisis.
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 Mr Berlusconi’s scandal-marred reign.
Hecklers shouted “Buffoon, Buffoon!” as Mr Berlusconi’s motorcade entered and exited the presidential palace, where he tendered his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano.
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 Mr Berlusconi’s allies remained split over whether to support him.
Their opposition wasn’t expected to scuttle Mr Napolitano’s plans to ask Mr Monti to try to form an interim government once Mr Berlusconi resigns, but it could make Monti’s job more difficult.
Mr Napolitano is expected to hold consultations today with all of Italy’s political forces before proceeding with his expected nomination of Mr Monti. Late on Saturday, Mr Berlusconi’s party said it would support Mr Monti, albeit with conditions.
Mr Berlusconi’s resignation was set in motion after the Chamber of Deputies, with a vote on Saturday of 380-26 with two abstentions, approved economic reforms which include increasing the retirement age starting in 2026 but do nothing to open up Italy’s inflexible labour market.
The Senate approved it a day earlier and Mr Napolitano signed the legislation yesterday afternoon, paving the way for Mr Berlusconi to leave office as he promised to do after losing his parliamentary majority earlier in the week. He chaired his final cabinet meeting last night.
Mr Berlusconi stood as legislators applauded him in the parliament chamber immediately after the vote. But outside his office and in front of government palazzos across town, hundreds of curiosity-seekers massing to witness the final hours of his government heckled him and his ministers.
“Shame!” and “Get Out!” the crowds yelled, many toting “Bye Bye Silvio Party” posters as they marched through downtown Rome in a festive indication that for many Italians, like financial markets, the time had come for Mr Berlusconi to go.
Berlusconi supporters were also out in force, some singing the national anthem, but they were outnumbered.
Earlier in the day, Mr Berlusconi lunched with Mr Monti in a clear sign the political transition was already under way, news reports said.
While the eurosceptic Northern League remained opposed to Mr Monti’s nomination, some legislators suggested they could support a Monti-led government for a few months to enact the additional EU-demanded reforms before elections are held in early 2012.
In a statement issued late on Saturday, Mr Berlusconi’s Peoples of Liberty party said its members would support Mr Monti, but added that they would also ensure that Mr Monti’s cabinet, legislative agenda and the timeframe of his government meets their requirements.
Mr Napolitano appealed for legislators 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.
“All political forces must act with a sense of responsibility,” he said.
It was an ignoble end for the 75-year-old billionaire media mogul, who came to power for the first time in 1994 using a soccer chant “Let’s Go Italy” as the name of his political party and selling Italians on a dream of prosperity with his own personal story of transformation from cruise-ship crooner to Italy’s richest man.
While he became Italy’s longest-serving post-war premier, Mr Berlusconi’s three stints as premier were tainted by corruption trials and accusations that he used his political power to help his business interests.
His last term has been marred by sex scandals, “bunga bunga” parties and criminal charges he paid a 17-year-old girl to have sex – accusations he denies.