Romano Prodi's government faces confidence vote in parliament's lower house

The government of Italian Premier Romano Prodi faces a confidence vote in parliament's lower house Friday and it was widely expected to get the win needed to formally put an end to Italy's political crisis.

Prodi addressed the Chamber of Deputies shortly before voting began. He defended the government's record and vowed to clean up the country's finances, emboldened by reassuring economic figures released a day before.

"Our strategy is bearing the fruit we had hoped for," Prodi told deputies. He said results were stronger than expected, but added more needed to be done to boost the country's economy.

Italy's economy expanded last year at its fastest pace since 2000, according to government statistics released Thursday. Gross domestic product rose 1.9 percent in 2006, compared with just 0.1 percent the previous year - but still below the euro-zone average of 2.7 percent.

If a government loses a vote of confidence it must resign. But Prodi's center-left forces have comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies, and the vote was expected to be a little more than formality.

The premier faced the toughest test earlier this week, surviving a vote in the Senate, which is almost evenly split between the center-left and the conservative opposition.

Prodi resigned last week after some far-leftists in his fractious coalition refused to back the government in a key Senate vote on foreign policy and on Italy's military mission in Afghanistan, the AP reports.

The Italian president asked Prodi to stay on and put the nine-month-old Cabinet to new confidence votes in parliament. Otherwise, it could have led to a broad coalition government or early elections.

But center-left allies have put differences aside, at least momentarily, and have vowed to support the premier - largely to avert a return to power of conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi.

Although the government's immediate survival is not threatened by Friday's vote, its long-term stability is fraught with obstacles.

Some far-left senators who supported Prodi in the confidence vote have said they maintain their opposition to the country's 1,800-strong military presence in Afghanistan and would vote against an upcoming measure to refinance the mission there. Prodi may have to rely on help from Berlusconi who has said his center-right forces would back the measure.

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