ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi is expected to resign Saturday after parliament's lower chamber passes European-demanded reforms, ending a 17-year political era and setting in motion a transition aimed at bringing Italy back from the brink of economic crisis.
While respected former European commissioner Mario Monti remained the top choice to steer the country out of its debt woes at the head of a transitional government, Berlusconi's allies remained split over who should replace the embattled leader.
It wasn't believed that their opposition would be sufficient, however, to scuttle President Giorgio Napolitano's plans to ask Monti to try to form an interim government once Berlusconi resigns.
That resignation is expected later Saturday after the Chamber of Deputies approves economic reforms, which include increasing the retirement age starting in 2026 but do nothing to open up Italy's inflexible labor market.
The Senate on Friday easily passed the measures, paving the way for Berlusconi to leave office as he promised to do after losing his parliamentary majority Nov. 8. A Cabinet meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. (1700 GMT), presumably Berlusconi's last, before he heads to Napolitano's palazzo to tender his resignation.
It's an ignoble end for the 75-year-old billionaire media mogul, who came to power for the first time in 1994 using a soccer chant "Go Italy" as the name of his political party and became Italy's longest-serving post-war premier.
But his three stints as premier were tainted by corruption trials and charges that he used his political power to help his business interests; and his last term has been marred by sex scandals, "bunga bunga" parties and criminal charges he paid a 17-year-old girl to have sex — accusations he denies.
Italy is under intense pressure to quickly put in place a new and effective government to replace him, one that can push through even more painful reforms and austerity measures to deal with its staggering debts, which stand at €1.9 trillion ($2.6 trillion), or a huge 120 percent of economic output. Italy has to roll over a little more than €300 billion ($410 billion) of its debts next year alone.
Markets battered Italy this past week amid uncertainty that Berlusconi would really leave and questions over whether Italy's notoriously paralyzed parliament could rally around a replacement. But Italy's borrowing rates pulled back after Napolitano made clear he intended to tap the politically neutral economist Monti to try to head an interim government to push the reforms through.
The yield on benchmark Italian 10-year bonds fell to 6.48 percent Friday, safely below the crisis level of 7 percent reached earlier this week.
Greece, Ireland and Portugal all required international bailouts after their own borrowing rates passed 7 percent. The Italian economy would not be so easy to save. It totals $2 trillion, twice as much as the other three countries combined.
An Italian default could tear apart the coalition of 17 countries that use the euro as a common currency and deal a strong blow to the economies of Europe and the United States, both trying to avoid recessions.
The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, said Italy's political transition over the next few days should send a "clear sign of clarification and of credibility" that the country is now on the right path to get its finances back in order.
The IMF has a key role to play over the next few months in overseeing Italy's efforts to pull itself back from economic disaster, monitoring how it implements reforms to rein in debt and spur growth, which is projected at a scant 0.6 percent this year and 0.3 percent next year.
Amid market turmoil last week, Berlusconi was forced to ask for IMF monitoring of Italy's finances, a humiliating prospect for the eurozone's third-largest economy and an embarrassment for the long-defiant Berlusconi.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Lagarde had high praise Saturday for Monti, saying she had great esteem for the "quality" economist with whom she had long enjoyed a "extremely warm" and effective relationship.