Jubilation as Italian PM Berlusconi resigns

Elated Italians cheered the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi outside Rome's presidential palace Saturday night after the flamboyant prime minister officially stepped down, ending a 17-year political career.

Crowd rejoices end of 17-year tenure after austerity measures approved

Elated Italians cheered the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi outside Rome's presidential palace Saturday night after the flamboyant prime minister officially stepped down, ending a 17-year political career that saw his notorious libido become a favourite topic among the country's media. 

Despite a racy reputation and years of being dogged by accusations of philandering, it was economics — not a sex scandal — that finally brought the curtain down on the 75-year-old media baron turned politician. 

Berlusconi had pledged to step down following Saturday's crucial parliamentary vote on austerity measures, which passed in the Italian lower house with 380 legislators in favour, 26 against. 

Thousands of people, a group of whom sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah, celebrated the resignation in the streets of Rome as security looked on. Some of the demonstrators waved signs bearing messages such as "Nov. 12 is the day of liberation" and "Bye bye, bunga bunga" — a reference to the wild sex parties Berlusconi was said to have attended.

The passage of the economic package, which includes spending cuts and proposals to boost growth and extend the retirement age, came after animated debate and "impassioned speeches from the left and the right" in parliament, freelance journalist Megan Williams told CBC News from Rome.

"Berlusconi himself looked grim. He came in at the last moment; he left early," she said.

He tendered his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano after convening his last cabinet meeting, and leaves as Italy's longest-serving, postwar prime minister.

Mario Monti tipped to become next PM

The approved economic austerity measures were demanded by the European Union. The same belt-tightening plan that passed Saturday in the Chamber of Deputies already won the approval of the country's senate, with little opposition, a day earlier.

Berlusconi, one of Italy's richest men and the owner of a large portion of the Italian media, was booed and heckled by crowds as he was driven to and from the presidential palace. Shouts of "Shame!" and "Buffoon, buffoon!" were directed at his motorcade.

Although some of his supporters showed up to sing the Italian national anthem and express their sadness over his resignation, they were clearly outnumbered.

A music sheet titled "Hallelujah for the govern breakdown" is seen in front of the presidential palace in Rome. ((Remo Casilli/Reuters))

In his years as the public face of Italian politics, Berlusconi was known for a racy tenure during which he was accused of partying with underage girls at sex parties.

Grant Amyot, a professor with Queen's University who has studied Italian policy, told CBC News he has watched with "horrified fascination" as Berlusconi managed to endure in politics despite apparent conflicts of interest and alleged trysts with young prostitutes.

He is facing several sets of criminal charges, including for corruption, tax fraud and allegations that he paid for sex with an underage Moroccan girl who went by the stage name "Ruby the Heart Stealer." 


What's next for Italy after Silvio Berlusconi? Have your say.

Amyot said it's undeniable that Berlusconi has left his mark Italian politics, emerging in 1994 as a "fresh face" and surviving 51 confidence votes. Over time, Amyot, said, Berlusconi's rise "has led to a degradation of Italian democracy." 

"The kind of party he set up, which is really the branch of a private business empire, obviously this isn't the private influence that makes for a healthy democracy, and the Italian right is in a real quandary because he is the party," Amyot said.

Mario Monti, a respected former European commissioner and economics professor, has been touted as a likely successor to form an emergency government.

Contrasts between Monti and Berlusconi

That expectation was heightened this week when Napolitano named Monti a senator for life. If chosen to be the next prime minister, Monti would have 18 months to shepherd the third-largest economy in the eurozone through further economic reforms. 

Napolitano will hold consultations Sunday morning with all of Italy's political groups. The back-to-back, 10-minute meetings he has scheduled indicate the talks won't last long and that Monti would likely be nominated by the end of the day. Late Saturday, Berlusconi's party said it would support Monti, albeit with conditions.

There's a sharp contrast between Monti and Berlusconi. The latter has been at the heart of Italian politics for the last 17 years, but more recently he has been ridiculed and embroiled in legal action for hosting parties at which magistrates say he entertained starlets and prostitutes, CBC freelance contributor Dominic Valitis reported from London.

"They are very different people indeed. Monti is a former European Union commissioner with some pretty heavy connections within the EU. He is a tough negotiator. He's not afraid of a fight. He's been known to take on big corporations," Valitis said.

Resignation won't fix economic troubles

Italy is under intense pressure to quickly put in place a new and effective government to replace Berlusconi's, one that can push through tough reforms to reduce Italy's staggering sovereign debt, pegged at €1.9 trillion ($2.6 trillion).

The economic reforms include increasing the retirement age from 65 to 67, starting in 2026, but do nothing to open up Italy's inflexible labour market. The measures also call for the privatization of some municipal services as well as the sale of state-owned real estate.

Italy's public debt totals twice that facing Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined. An Italian default could tear apart the coalition of 17 countries that use the euro as a common currency and deal a strong blow to the economies of industrialized countries struggling to avoid recessions.

Silvio Berlusconi, in the backseat, arrives in his car at the Quirinale Presidential Palace to meet Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in Rome. Berlusconi has stepped down as prime minister. ((Andrew Medichini/Associated Press))

Patrick Young, a global markets analyst with the firm DV Advisors, said the problems with Italy run deep and won't be resolved with a single austerity package, and certainly not with Berlusconi's resignation alone. 

"The problem we have here is that ultimately, this crisis has spiralled out of control due to a complete lack of leadership on the political level throughout the European Union. And the problem is that it's not just a question of this particular package of austerity, which is going to be pretty tough for Italians. The truth of the matter is people don't have confidence in the eurozone leadership and in the eurozone political classes," he told CBC News.

Young said Italy has had structural deficit issues for up to the last 50 years and those problems won't be resolved with one simple austerity package.

With files from The Associated Press