Italian prime minister resigns after big losses in regional vote; Opposition leader insists on call for early elections


ROME -- Closing down Italy's 57th government since World War II, Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema resigned yesterday, leaving his battered center-left coalition to look for someone else to govern until parliamentary elections a year from now.

But Silvio Berlusconi, the center-right opposition leader who was the big winner in the regional elections Sunday, insisted that President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi dissolve Parliament immediately and call early elections.

Ciampi, who has the option of appointing a caretaker government, said he would begin consulting party leaders today.

In a final speech to the Senate yesterday, D'Alema admitted some failings that had led to his coalition's humiliating defeat. But he urged his colleagues not to allow early elections that would jettison a referendum on May 21 that he insists would bring greater stability to the hybrid -- and volatile -- electoral system. D'Alema wants to introduce a two-bloc system and eliminate proportional representation, which accounts for 25 percent of the seats in Parliament.

"It would be paradoxical to go to a vote with an election system that all political forces regard as inadequate to guarantee government stability," he said.

D'Alema, 51, took office 18 months ago after his predecessor, Romano Prodi, lost a confidence vote. D'Alema was the first former Communist premier in Western Europe. But he steered a centrist course, supporting NATO's effort in Kosovo and passing budgets aimed at keeping the economy within the confines of the euro.

But his government majority was slim at the outset, and after narrowly surviving a no-confidence vote in December, it shrank even further. He was unable to push through welfare and pension reforms, but alienated unions by trying. He had only moderate success tackling the unemployment rate, which remains above 20 percent in southern Italy.

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