ROME A popular Italian opposition leader predicted on Wednesday that a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in two weeks will mark "the end of an empire" and spawn an early national election.
Antonio Di Pietro, who made his name as a cutting edge
anti-corruption magistrate in the early 1990s, said Berlusconi had humiliated Italy around the world and should no longer be allowed to govern.
"We are already looking beyond Berlusconi," Di Pietro said at a meeting with the foreign press corps.
Berlusconi faces a no-confidence motion on December 14 in the lower house of parliament -- where he no longer has a secure majority. The motion would bring down his struggling government if he loses, as Di Pietro said he expects.
Di Pietro, who spearheaded the so-called "Clean Hands" investigations of political corruption in the early 1990s, is now the leader of the small Italy of Values party and has become one of Berlusconi's most strident critics.
"We need a political class that looks after the interests of the citizen and not after its own interests. So what we want to see is not only the end of Berlusconi but the end of Berlusconi-ism where politicians protect themselves.
"Now that the end of the empire is approaching, we want to be part of an alternative," he added, saying the next prime minister would have to work hard to restore Italy's institutional and economic credibility at home and abroad.
Berlusconi has been under threat since July when he expelled his ambitious erstwhile ally Gianfranco Fini and more than 40 rebel deputies and senators from the ruling People of Freedom party (PDL), cementing a break that has cost him a safe parliamentary majority.
GARBAGE, WOMEN AND CORRUPTION
The prime minister's approval ratings have been falling steadily, hit by problems ranging from a crisis over waste collection in Naples to high youth unemployment and a series of corruption and morals scandals involving women.
Italy has so far largely escaped the euro zone debt turmoil. But its borrowing costs on bond markets have jumped sharply in recent days, underlining the potential risks posed by its huge public debt burden if political uncertainty persists.
"We hope that on December 14 Berlusconi and his government will fall because he has humiliated Italy's institutions, put the economy on its knees and ruined our credibility abroad," Di Pietro said.
Di Pietro, whose small party is expected by many commentators to make gains in new polls, said he believed President Giorgio Napolitano should immediately call an early election.
The only alternative, Di Pietro said, was for Napolitano to ask someone to form a "technical government" with a limited term and a precise mandate to change Italy's cumbersome electoral laws and shepherd the country to an early vote next year.
Italy's widely criticized electoral laws give power to the largest party or electoral coalition, whether or not it has an absolute majority.
Di Pietro said his party would be willing to support such a government, regardless of who headed it, citing as an example a coalition with a 90-day life span and a precise expiration date.
"But if the electoral law can't be changed first, we should hold elections as soon as possible," he said.
Commentators have said Napolitano could also decide to appoint someone to try to form a government with the aim of lasting until the scheduled end of the legislature in 2013.
But Di Pietro said he opposed this because such a government would likely have such a precarious majority as to render the executive ineffective.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)