Embattled Premier Silvio Berlusconi is expected to resign on Saturday after Parliament's Lower Chamber passes European-demanded reforms, ending a 17-year political era and setting in motion a transition aimed at bringing Italy back from the brink of economic crisis.

Respected former European commissioner Mario Monti remained the top choice to try to steer the country out of its debt woes as the head of a transitional government, but Mr. Berlusconi's allies remained split over whether to support him.

Their opposition probably will not scuttle President Giorgio Napolitano's plans to ask Mr. Monti to try to form an interim government once Mr. Berlusconi resigns, but it will likely make Mr. Monti's job more difficult.

Mr. Berlusconi's resignation is expected later on Saturday after the Chamber of Deputies approves economic reforms, which include increasing the retirement age starting in 2026 but do nothing to open up Italy's inflexible labour market.

The Senate on Friday easily passed the measures, paving the way for Mr. Berlusconi to leave office as he promised to do after losing his parliamentary majority on Tuesday. A Cabinet meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. (1700 GMT), presumably Mr. Berlusconi's last, before he heads to Mr. Napolitano's palazzo to tender his resignation.

It's an ignoble end for the 75-year-old billionaire media mogul, who came to power for the first time in 1994 using a soccer chant “Go Italy” as the name of his political party and became Italy's longest-serving post-war Premier.

But his three stints as Premier were tainted by corruption trials and charges that he used his political power to help his business interests; and his last term has been marred by sex scandals, “bunga bunga” parties and criminal charges he paid a 17-year-old girl to have sex.

Italy is under intense pressure to quickly put in place a new and effective government to replace him, one that can push through even more painful reforms and austerity measures to deal with its staggering debts, which stand at $2.6 trillion, or a huge 120 per cent of economic output. Italy has to roll over a little more than $410 billion of its debts next year alone.

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