Prime Minister Romano Prodi Thursday handed his resignation to the Italian president after losing a confidence vote in the upper house of parliament. Mr. Prodi will continue as caretaker leader while the president decides whether to hold early general elections. Sabina Castelfranco reports for VOA from Rome.

For 20 months it had not been easy to maintain power for Prime Minister Romano Prodi's center-left government. The coalition has been dogged by a host of problems, including political squabbling and allegations of corruption.

From the outset, the coalition had a very limited majority in the senate. And Thursday it lost a vote of confidence in that house.

Senate speaker Franco Marini read out the outcome of the vote.

Mr. Prodi's government fell four votes short of the 160 needed for victory.

In a final appeal for support to senators before the vote, Mr. Prodi declared that his insistence of having the risky vote was "not a gesture of stubbornness but of being consistent."

The 68-year-old prime minister had told senators that Italy was in need more than ever of being governed and of continuity in its government. He had warned that the country could not afford a power vacuum at this time. He said changing government was a luxury Italy could not afford at a time of global economic nervousness.

But his words fell on deaf ears.

Earlier this week, the Christian Democratic party, had pulled its support after the resignation of its one of its own, justice minister Clemente Mastella.

After his defeat, Mr. Prodi handed in his resignation to the president. Opposition leader and former center-right prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Mr. Prodi in opinion polls, called for immediate elections.

But the Iresident has more than one option. He could decide to ask someone else to form a new government to deal with an electoral system badly in need of reform before new elections. Or, he could decide to hold a snap general election to form Italy 62nd government since World War II.

Consultations between the president and political leaders to help him decide what the best course of actions is are expected to start Friday.