Italy's government, divided over the Afghan war and ties with the U.S. military, lost a crucial vote on foreign policy on Wednesday that plunged Prime Minister Romano Prodi into his worst crisis since taking office in May.
Amid opposition calls for him to resign, Prodi convened an extraordinary cabinet meeting for Wednesday evening.
There was no constitutional requirement for Prodi to step down. But Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema had said before the Senate vote that the centre-left government should resign if it did not command majority support on foreign policy.
The motion, a broadly worded declaration of support for foreign policy, received 158 votes in favor, below the necessary majority of 160 votes and was followed by a chorus of opposition calls for the government to "quit, quit, quit".
"We need to reflect now. We need to evaluate whether this is a political crisis or just a numeric one," said Justice Minister Clemente Mastella.
Renato Schifani, Senate leader of the biggest opposition party, Forza Italia, held up a copy of Wednesday's La Stampa newspaper which had quoted D'Alema's warning to coalition pacifists who oppose Italy's military presence in Afghanistan.
Italy has 1,900 troops there on a NATO-led mission.
"I have in my hand one of the most important newspapers in the country with a declaration by Foreign Minister D'Alema: 'Resignation if we have no majority,'" Schifani said to cheers from allies.
"There is no majority any more ... There is no Prodi government any more. The Prodi government has fallen in this chamber."
The defeat was the most serious setback for Prodi's nine-month-old coalition government, also deeply divided over a host of domestic issues ranging from the budget, pension reform and a bill giving legal recognition to gay and unwed couples.
D'Alema to Quit?
More than a hundred opposition supporters gathered outside Prodi's offices, calling for him to step down.
A political source in the Catholics-to-communists ruling coalition expected Prodi to survive the ordeal but said D'Alema, who is also deputy prime minister, would likely resign as foreign minister.
"It's a given that the foreign minister will quit," the government source said, adding that he expected Prodi to call a confidence vote with the hope of forcing his divided coalition to join ranks to avoid collapse.
But a colleague from D'Alema's Democrats of the Left, the largest coalition party, said that if he resigned, the whole government would have to follow suit.
"D'Alema's not out on his own," said Parliamentary Relations Minister Vannino Chiti. "A government that has no cohesive, self-sufficient majority has to go, not just the foreign minister."
Prodi said he would speak about the failed vote with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, the supreme arbiter in Italian politics. D'Alema was also expected to speak with Napolitano.
Before the vote, D'Alema had appealed to his coalition allies to support his foreign policy initiatives.
"Italy, which is not a great power, cannot take on complex challenges without a strong political consensus," D'Alema said.
Beyond Afghanistan, one of the most divisive issues has been a plan to expand a U.S. military base in northern Italy. Protests against the plan drew tens of thousands of Italians, including some senior coalition members, last weekend.
D'Alema said the government was compelled to allow the base expansion, saying: "Revoking the authorization would have been a hostile act on our part against the United States."
Italy's fragile ruling coalition has only a one-seat majority in the Senate but in the past had managed to muster support by calling confidence votes.
But one leftist senator announced he would resign rather than vote for D'Alema's motion.
"I am against the war in Afghanistan and against the U.S. base in Vicenza," said Franco Turigliatto, with the Communist Refoundation party.