Italy's Silvio Berlusconi has resigned

ROME (AP) - Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi resigned Saturday after parliament's lower chamber passed European-demanded reforms, ending a 17-year political era and setting in motion a transition aimed at bringing the country back from the brink of economic crisis.

A chorus of Handel's "Alleluia," performed by a few dozen singers and classical musicians, rang out in front of the president's palace as thousands of Italians poured into downtown Rome to rejoice at the end of Berlusconi's scandal-marred reign.

Hecklers shouted "Buffoon, Buffoon!" as Berlusconi's motorcade entered and exited the presidential palace, where he tendered his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano, the palace said in a statement.

Respected former European commissioner Mario Monti remained the top choice to try to steer the country out of its debt woes as the head of a transitional government, but Berlusconi's allies remained split over whether to support him.

Their opposition wasn't expected to scuttle Napolitano's plans to ask Monti to try to form an interim government as early as Sunday, but it could make Monti's job more difficult.

Napolitano will hold consultations Sunday morning with all Italy's political forces. The back-to-back, 10-minute meetings he has scheduled indicated the talks wouldn't drag on and that Monti would be nominated by the end of the day. Late Saturday, Berlusconi's party said it would support Monti, albeit with conditions.

Berlusconi's resignation was set in motion after the Chamber of Deputies, with a vote Saturday of 380-26 with two abstentions, approved economic reforms which include increasing the retirement age starting in 2026 but do nothing to open up Italy's inflexible labor market.

The Senate approved it a day earlier and Napolitano signed the legislation Saturday afternoon, paving the way for Berlusconi to leave office as he promised to do after losing his parliamentary majority earlier in the week. He chaired his final Cabinet meeting Saturday evening and thanked his ministers.

In a statement issued late Saturday, Berlusconi's Peoples of Liberty party said its members would support Monti, but added that they would also ensure that Monti's Cabinet, legislative agenda and the timeframe of his government meets their requirements.

Napolitano appealed for lawmakers to put the good of the country ahead of short-term, local interests - an indirect appeal to members of Berlusconi's party and the allied Northern League to work with the new government.

"All political forces must act with a sense of responsibility," he said.

It was 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 "Let's Go Italy" as the name of his political party and selling Italians on a dream of prosperity with his own personal story of transformation from cruise-ship crooner to Italy's richest man.

While he became Italy's longest-serving post-war premier, Berlusconi's three stints as premier were tainted by corruption trials and accusations that he used his political power to help his business interests.

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.

In the end, his downfall came swiftly: Just last week Berlusconi boldly told a G-20 summit in Cannes, France, he was the only one who could steer Italy out of its economic morass. A week of battering on the markets and the defection of several party members later, his fate was sealed.

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 $2.6 trillion, or a huge 120 percent of economic output. Italy has to roll over a little more than $410 billion of its debts next year alone.


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