( dpa ) - Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, whose government is seriously weakened by the defection of a key ally, on Tuesday dismissed opposition calls for his resignation and asked parliament to decide his political fate through a vote of confidence.
Prodi, in an impassioned 20-minute speech frequently interrupted by heckling from the benches of the centre-right opposition, told the lower house Chamber of Deputies that a "crisis" had struck the centre-left government.
"But only parliament can decide a government's fate, not news agency reports and television talk-show debates," the premier said.
Prodi referred to an announcement Monday by former justice minister Clemente Mastella - who last week resigned in the wake of a corruption scandal - that his UDEUR party would no longer support the government.
Mastella's and the UDEUR's decision was "certainly influenced by the judicial case which has engulfed him on a personal and political level," Prodi said.
According to parliamentary regulations a confidence vote has to take place at least 24 hours after the request is made, meaning that in the Chamber of Deputies it would take place on Wednesday afternoon at the earliest. A vote in the Senate would then follow over the next days.
Monday's announcement by Mastella, whose wife is under house arrest along with several top UDEUR officials, reversed a previous pledge to continue supporting the government.
Opposition leaders, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi immediately asked Prodi to resign, arguing that with the loss of the UDEUR's support, the government no longer has a majority in parliament.
"I hope we can now go directly to fresh elections," Berlusconi said in an interview earlier Tuesday with Canale 5, one of the three nationwide private television stations owned by the opposition leader.
Apparently smelling blood, the opposition which for weeks has squabbled over leadership issues, closed ranks with its second largest party, Alleanza Nazionale, indicating it also favoured fresh elections and would back Berlusconi - who heads the centre right's largest party Forza Italia - as candidate premier.
The other main centre-right party the conservative Catholic UDC also called on Prodi to resign, but it was not immediately clear if, as previously stated, it would continue to back the creation of a caretaker government to usher in electoral reforms.
The proposal of a caretaker government, should Prodi fall, has also been floated by representatives of the centre-left. They want to reform the current electoral system, which leads to unstable governing coalitions where small parties can often dictate terms.
Still, Prodi's speech indicated the premier intends to fight on in parliament where his slender majority, especially in the Senate, has been further jeopardized by the UDEUR's defection.
The eight-party centre-left coalition has enough seats to survive a confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies, but to do the same in the upper house, the Senate, it would need - in the absence of the UDEUR - the support of non-elected life senators.
Prodi has since his election in April 2006 relied on life- senators to win several confidence votes in the Senate, where the centre-left's majority has wavered between a handful of votes. The UDEUR holds three Senate seats.
Even before the UDEUR defection Prodi was set for a difficult week, with a parliamentary confidence vote due on Environment Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio.
Pecoraro Scanio, who rejected calls for his resignation over a crisis in Naples where refuse has gone largely uncollected since Christmas, had threatened to withdraw his Green Party from the coalition if the confidence vote set for Wednesday goes against him.