- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

ROME — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said yesterday he would step down but pledged to form a new government — an attempt to strengthen a coalition hobbled by electoral defeat and concerns over a sluggish economy.

His resignation will end Italy’s longest-serving government since World War II. Mr. Berlusconi had been under pressure to resign since a stinging defeat in regional elections earlier this month.

“The regional elections showed a clear sign of discomfort,” Mr. Berlusconi said during a Senate address.

He said he would offer his resignation to Italy’s president later yesterday, but added he was confident a new government would restart the center-right coalition.

Once a government resigns, it is up to the president to designate a candidate to try to form a new one, or else dissolve parliament and call early elections. President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi is likely to give Mr. Berlusconi a new mandate.

Mr. Berlusconi has been struggling to hold his four-year-old government together, and a senior coalition partner threatened Tuesday to quit the government in a further setback.

The National Alliance party said it still would support the center-right coalition but that the continued participation of its ministers “depends solely on what Berlusconi will say and do.”

The party’s ministers had prepared letters of resignation and its leaders were planning to meet after Mr. Berlusconi’s address to parliament.

The National Alliance is the coalition’s second-largest party after Mr. Berlusconi’s own party, Forza Italia. There was little chance that the government could have survived if the party’s five ministers had resigned.

Last week, a smaller coalition partner, the Union of Christian Democrats, or UDC, decided to withdraw its three ministers from the Cabinet. The tiny New Italian Socialist Party also had pulled out two lower-level officials.

The political turmoil was triggered by a crushing defeat in the April 3-4 regional elections. Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity has fallen amid sluggish economic growth and Italy’s unpopular military mission in Iraq.

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