ROME – Romano Prodi won his first parliamentary battle on Saturday when his candidates were elected speakers of the two houses of parliament, despite a bitterly fought race that indicated his center-left coalition's difficulty in controlling the Senate.
Hours later, outgoing Premier Silvio Berlusconi suggested he would resign Tuesday, clearing the way for a Prodi government.
Berlusconi did not directly say that he would hand his resignation to Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. But, asked when he would step down, he replied, "The Cabinet meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday" and added that soon afterward he would go to see Ciampi.
The Cabinet is expected to formalize Berlusconi's resignation.
The parliament's vote earlier Saturday marked a political victory for Prodi after days of tensions.
His candidate Franco Marini won the Senate presidency at the fourth round of voting after a close race against former Christian Democrat premier Giulio Andreotti, the nominee of Berlusconi's coalition. Marini won 165 votes against Andreotti's 156.
Hours earlier, Prodi's candidate in the lower house, veteran communist leader Fausto Bertinotti, had won the presidency.
"I am very very happy," Prodi was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency. "We have settled in."
Applause broke out in both chambers, signaling the center-left's relief after securing its candidates for parliament's top jobs. With the election of the speakers, attention shifts to the formation of a government led by Prodi.
Prodi, whose center-left forces won the April 9-10 elections, is expected to receive the mandate from Italy's president to form a new government. But it was not clear when that would happen because the president's term expires May 18 and he has indicated he wants to leave the task to his successor.
Italian newspapers have speculated recently that Ciampi might change his mind and give the mandate to avoid further delay. Ciampi has not made recent public comments, and Berlusconi said Saturday he did not know whether the president had changed his mind.
Meanwhile Prodi said he would continue talks with allies to define his Cabinet.
While Prodi's allies have a workable majority in the lower Chamber of Deputies, they have only a two-seat majority in the Senate, and the vote to choose a Senate president was seen as an early test for his coalition.
But the close votes and the tension that arose as ballots were being cast reinforced the impression that, with such a slim majority in the house, Prodi's forces will find it exceedingly difficult to push through legislation.
"This is a weak, frail majority that can't be independent and autonomous," Renato Schifani, the Senate whip for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
In the lower house, Bertinotti had failed to reach the required two-thirds majority in balloting Friday. A simple majority was needed in Saturday's new round — which Bertinotti clinched with 337 votes — and his victory had been widely expected.
Bertinotti, 66, a hardline communist and a former union official, serves as the leader of a communist party in Prodi's coalition.
Marini, 73, is a former leader of one of Italy's major labor confederations, which has traditionally been supported by Christian Democrats. He is a leading member of the center-left party La Margherita, or Daisy, a major partner in Prodi's coalition.