Prodi's government wins trust vote

The new government of Italian Premier Romano Prodi passed its first parliamentary test Friday, winning a vote of confidence in the closely divided Senate with a comfortable, 10-vote majority. The vote in the upper house of parliament was seen as test of the stability of Prodi's center-left majority as the ruling coalition won a mere two-seat majority in last month's elections.

The 165-155 vote was received with applause and relief by center-left senators, and Prodi noted that "it could not have gone any better." The margin of Friday's vote was due to support from seven senators-for-life, who are not part of the 315 elected members of the Senate but are appointed by presidents for their life achievements.

The senators-for-life, who include Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi Montalcini and former heads of state, all supported Prodi, drawing boos from the conservatives. The senators-for-life are seen as being above the political fray, but they often take part in Senate activity and votes.

Former conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi said their behavior was "deeply immoral," according to the Apcom and ANSA news agencies. Prodi also received support from a small party in his coalition that had previously threatened to hold back its votes, amid a spat with the premier over Cabinet choices.

The threat, while not followed through, hinted at the difficulties Prodi could face in commanding his diverse bloc, which ranges from Communists and Christian Democrats to anti-Vatican secularists. Before the vote, Prodi had said his center-left majority was "solid and united." But analysts are skeptical that Prodi's government will last long, given his slender majority in the Senate and his fractious coalition.

"The Prodi government has a rather bumpy road ahead, with a diverse, and also restless, coalition and an unsafe majority," leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera wrote in a front-page editorial. "Yet, it raised various expectations and now must live up to them."

Conservative senators harshly criticized the government platform, outlined by Prodi a day earlier, and its supposed weakness. "We'll be back at the helm of the country we love and it will be soon," said Renato Schifani, Senate whip for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. Another conservative, former Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione, said "this government was born very weak" and promised tough opposition.

In a Senate speech Wednesday presenting his program, Prodi vowed to bring home Italian troops in Iraq and apply shock therapy to fix the country's struggling economy. The platform promised to reverse years of policies under his conservative predecessor Berlusconi, both in domestic and international affairs. One major challenge facing the government is reviving the country's zero-growth economy.

On Iraq , Prodi described the war in Iraq as a "grave error that hasn't solved in fact, has complicated the problem of security." Prodi did not give a timetable for the withdrawal of the remaining 2,600 Italian troops, sent in by Berlusconi after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to help rebuild Iraq . Parliament must vote on the financing of the mission by the end of June. Prodi said Friday that his plan did not differ much from Berlusconi's pledge to pull out the troops by the end of the year.

"What's the difference between the withdrawal announced by us and the (previous) government's statement to leave the country by 2006? We are at the end of May 2005," he said. During the campaign, Prodi had noted there was little difference between his and Berlusconi's policies on troops, saying his rival "had come around" and begun withdrawing Italy 's military, reports the AP.