THE rollercoaster of Italian politics took a dip after regional elections this week.
A victory by the center-left parties dashed the hopes of former prime minister and television magnate Silvio Berlusconi for his early return to power.
Prime Minister Lamberto Dini, a technocrat backed by the center-left, indicated on Tuesday that he is not staying long in office, however.
At a meeting in Washington, he said he will resign in June after Parliament approves or rejects his overhaul of Italy's troubled pension system. This would fulfill his earlier pledge to preside over a short-term government and would likely pave the way to new elections.
The center-left parties were encouraged by Sunday's vote. The Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) won 24.6 percent of the vote, while Forza Italia and the right-wing National Alliance, Mr. Berlusconi's two main coalition partners, took 22.4 and 14.1 percent respectively.
The PDS, with numerous smaller parties, won nine regions against the six won by the allies of Berlusconi, who owns three national television networks. In the 11 cities where mayoral candidates avoided a runoff by winning more than 50 percent of the vote, all but one of the victors were center-left candidates.
All this is a sharp setback for Berlusconi. The former prime minister wanted to win this election to prove that Dini's government does not represent the nation.
He pleaded with his fellow citizens not to turn the country's regional governments over ''to the Communists,'' as he describes Italy's left.
Although the latest results are similar to those of 1993's mayoral elections, in which left-wing candidates won in Turin, Trieste, Venice, Rome, Naples, and Palermo, the Italian left -- which for decades was indeed represented by the Communist Party -- has never governed nationally.
Encouraged by the results, many center-left politicians say that if the forces opposed to Berlusconi unite under a common symbol they can win the next parliamentary elections, which are expected in October.
The populace appeared to have spent much soul-searching before making a choice for the center-left, and seemed undecided until the last moment. PDS leader Massimo D'Alema noted with some satisfaction just before the vote that the two sides were virtually neck-and-neck and predicted he would win seven regions to Berlusconi's eight.
At first, exit polls indicated that Mr. D'Alema may have been overly optimistic. A confident Gianfranco Fini, leader of the National Alliance, challenged D'Alema to appear on Berlusconi's leading television news program the next night to discuss the right's triumph.
But the next day, as the real results trickled in, Mr. Fini was conspicuous by his absence. A 3 p.m. Fini press conference was rescheduled for 6 p.m., when a spokesman read a brief statement from Fini that said the National Alliance's results were ''positive, but lower than we expected.''
On the 8 p.m. news on Berlusconi's station, the anchor replayed the tape of Fini's boastful challenge of the previous evening, noted that Fini was nowhere to be seen, and welcomed D'Alema, who happily answered questions about the center-left victory.