Prodi Warns Senate of 'Power Vacuum' Risk

ROME Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi told the Italian Senate on Thursday that if it forces him to resign with an expected no-confidence vote, a "power vacuum" will leave Italy's economy vulnerable to a global slowdown.

"The country needs more than ever to be governed. Italy needs continuity in its government and cannot afford a power vacuum," said Prodi, whose 1 1/2 years in office have been dogged by instability in his fragmented center-left coalition.

Defeat for 68-year-old Prodi would probably bring early elections, which polls suggest would return former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to power.

As markets reacted nervously to the prospect of the collapse of Italy's 61st government since World War II and more turmoil, Prodi told the debate that changing government was a "luxury Italy cannot afford" at a moment of global economic apprehension.

"Italy risks finding itself in a negative economic cycle which we will face with still imperfect economic structures," he told senators at the start of a rowdy debate, where one senator was shouted down and carried out of the chamber on a stretcher.

Prodi sought confidence votes in both houses after a small Catholic party withdrew its support for him, erasing his tiny majority in the upper house. Further defections mean that even the support of unelected lifetime senators is unlikely to save him.

But the man known in Italy as "the professor" decided to go ahead with the vote, rejecting the advice of President Giorgio Napolitano to step down after winning an easier vote in the lower house on Wednesday.

Even one of the prime minister's most acerbic critics, Senator Roberto Calderoli of the far-right Northern League, said he admired his pluck: "He will lose the confidence vote but he will fall with a soldier's honor for having fought to the end."

The center-right opposition led by Berlusconi, who lost to Prodi in 2006 elections, hopes Napolitano will call early elections, which, according to opinion polls, Berlusconi would win by a clear margin.

But there is a groundswell of pressure in Italy for reforms to election rules, tampered with by Berlusconi before the last elections, which are widely blamed for the unstable system of fragmented coalitions whose bickering has dogged Prodi's tenure.