Europe's debt crisis struck at the ancient capitals of Rome and Athens on Tuesday. Italian Premier Minister Silvio Berlusconi squeaked through a key vote and resisted calls for his resignation, and Greek politicians said they were close to agreeing on a new government to lead their country through painful cutbacks.
Both governments are under heavy pressure to reassure financial markets that the 17-country eurozone is moving quickly to reduce crippling government debts before those debts break apart the monetary union and plunge the world into a new recession.
Wealthier European countries including Germany and France have already bailed out struggling Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and Greece will get another 100 billion euros ($138 billion) of debt relief as soon as it resolves its political crisis.
Senior government officials said Greece would get a new prime minister later Tuesday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding the second day of talks between Prime Minister George Papandreou and opposition leader Antonis Samaras. They hope to reach a power-sharing deal that will prevent Greece from going bankrupt.
Italy poses an even graver challenge: Europe can't afford to bail out its 1.9 trillion euro ($2.6 trillion) debt pile, and wants to see Italy live up to promises to rein in spending and improve lagging growth so it can pay it off itself. Few believe Berlusconi — sapped by scandal and economic bungling — has the political clout to get that done, and calls are increasing for him to resign.
Berlusconi's main coalition ally, Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, urged him to resign, telling reporters Tuesday: "We asked him to step aside, take a step to the side." Bossi is the volatile ally who brought down Berlusconi's first conservative government in 1994.
His comments came as he arrived for a much-watched vote that Berlusconi survived, but which laid bare the prime minister's lack of support in Parliament.
The vote, on a routine budget measure, won 308 votes of approval and no votes against in the lower house. But 321 deputies abstained from voting, most of them from the center-left opposition. If all 630 lawmakers had voted, Berlusconi would need a 316-seat majority to assure he was still in command.
Berlusconi scrutinized the vote tally handed him right after the vote, apparently trying to figure out who had abstained.
"This government does not have the majority!" thundered opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani, rising up in the chamber. "We all know that Italy is running the real risk in the next days to not have access to financial markets."
He was referring to Italy's borrowing rates, which have been soaring amid weeks of political uncertainty over Berlusconi's ability to oversee the adoption of austerity measures to fight Italy's growing debt burden.
Italian bond yields — the interest rates Italy would need to pay when it borrows money — reached their highest point since the country joined the euro in 1999 on increasing fears of default. The yields hit 6.73 percent, not far from the 7 percent levels that pushed Ireland, Portugal and Greece to seek bailouts.
Higher yields are signs of market fear of default and reluctance to lend, and they also make debt harder to repay in a vicious circle, since Italy needs to take out new loans to pay off the old ones.
The European Central Bank has been buying government bonds as a last-ditch defense to drive down yields and borrowing costs, but the bank insists the program is temporary. Eurozone finance ministers are working on ways to strengthen their 440 billion euro bailout fund and give it effective lending power of over 1 trillion euro through financial leverage and attracting money from private investors.
Even that wouldn't be enough to save Italy, the eurozone's third-largest economy.
In Greece, Papandreou and Samaras agreed over the weekend to forge an interim government that will shepherd the country's new 130 billion euro ($179 billion) European rescue package through Parliament.
By Tuesday afternoon there were still no details of when an interim prime minister would be announced, but the pressure was increasing on Greek politicians to make decisions soon. There was mounting speculation that a former deputy at the European Central Bank, Lucas Papademos, might replace Papandreou.
The country's ministers offered their resignations to Papandreou on Tuesday to pave the way for the creation of the interim government, which is only expected to last until Feb. 19 when a newly elected government would take over.
"We have made our resignation available to the prime minister in order to help him with his actions," Tourism Minister George Nikitiadis said. "My feeling is that tonight we will have a name (of the new premier). It's going well."
Greece's eurozone partners are demanding that Papandreou, Samaras and three other Greek officials co-sign a letter reaffirming their commitment to the country's bailout deals and economic reforms, in return for the release of a vital 8 billion euro ($11 billion) loan installment later this month, according to a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the demand was not public.
In return for its bailout cash, Greece has endured 20 months of punishing austerity measures. The efforts by Papandreou's government to keep the country solvent have prompted violent protests, crippling strikes and a sharp decline in living standards for most Greeks.
© Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.