REPORTING FROM ROME — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, blamed by many for leading his country to the brink of financial ruin, resigned Saturday night as throngs of people gathered throughout the city, bursting into chants and brimming with both hopes and trepidation that a new political and economic era would soon begin for the country.
The 75-year-old billionaire, Italy’s longest-serving postwar prime minister, tendered his resignation Saturday night a few hours after the Parliament completed approval of a package of austerity measures demanded by the European Union.
Faced with relentless pressure from financial markets amid fear that Italy could default on its $2.6-trillion debt, Berlusconi had pledged Tuesday to step down upon passage of the austerity bill, but many Italians wondered whether the wily politician might craft a way to stay in power.
But the political and financial pressures were too much. Berlusconi and his center-right party are the latest in Europe to be toppled by the continent’s debt crisis, which has seen the fall of five leaders or governments in the last year, most recently in Greece.
Berlusconi’s resignation is expected to usher in a new Italian government led by Mario Monti, a former European commissioner who spearheaded an antitrust suit against Microsoft and is well-regarded by the financial establishment in the West.
But it remains to be seen whether Monti, an economist, can build the support needed in Italy’s fractured Parliament to carry out austerity measures — including pension reform, labor law changes and cuts in public spending — that are highly unpopular with many in the country.
But on this brisk Saturday night in Rome, even those wary of Monti and the country’s date with austerity were willing to let those concerns go as they cheered the departure of Berlusconi and the end of what many considered an ignoble political era for Italy, marked by his in-your-face style, sexual scandals and a failure to address Italy’s economic problems.
"It's a historic day," said Bruno Grassi, 21, an engineering student who gathered with others outside Berlusconi’s private home, Palazzo Grazioli, in central Rome.
A larger crowd formed on the square of the Quirinal, the residence of Italy’s president, where the mood was festive.
At 9 p.m., as Berlusconi’s car pulled into the Quirinal, where he was to formally tender his resignation to the president, shouts erupted from the crowd: "Resign, resign! Fool, fool!"
About 45 minutes later, Berlusconi’s car left the Quirinal.
But even if the in-your-face billionaire became a symbol of all that is wrong with Italy, getting rid of him doesn't change structural problems decades in the making that are central to the debt crisis now dragging down the European — and the global — economies.
— Don Lee
Photo: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waves as he leaves the Italian Presidential Palace after formally submitting his resignation to Italy's president in Rome on Saturday. Credit: Alessandro Di Meo / EPA