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Friday, February 23, 2007

Italy's Prodi set to return as prime minister

ROME (AFP) - Romano Prodi looked set Friday to be renamed as Italy's prime minister after securing the backing of his fractious ruling coalition with the threat of a new election.

Prodi resigned on Wednesday after an embarrassing foreign policy defeat in the Senate, raising the spectre of a new period of revolving-door governments for which Italy was notorious for decades following World War II.

Following the late-night accord, however, President Giorgio Napolitano pursued consultations with political leaders and was expected to decide Friday or Saturday whether to give the centre-left leader a new chance to form a government.

Silvio Berlusconi, the right wing leader and former prime minister, said after meeting with Napolitano: "We told the head of state that this government is not and will never be able to govern."

Berlusconi added: "Now we find ourselves faced with an indisputable reality, the absence of a parliamentary majory in foreign and defence policy, issues that jeopardise Italy's international credibility."

Prodi got his coalition to agree a 12-point "non-negotiable" political pact which includes support for Italy's 2,000-troop deployment in
Afghanistan and other foreign commitments, the issue that caused the rupture on Wednesday.

The 67-year-old prime minister, whose coalition narrowly won last April's elections, also secured a commitment to a high-speed train linking the northern city of Turin to Lyon, France, a project opposed by the Greens.

"Either you accept these conditions ... or I go. And after me, you know very well, all that's left is the prospect of elections," Corriere della Sera newspaper quoted Prodi as telling his coalition partners.

In Wednesday's Senate vote two communist senators who oppose the Afghanistan mission and the planned enlargement of a US military base in Vicenza, northern Italy, voted against Prodi.

Franco Giordano, the secretary of the Refoundation Communist party, said: "What is important now is to confirm confidence in Prodi. Efforts to end this government experiment should in no way succeed."

The crisis comes at a time when Italy has commitments in many areas, notably Lebanon, where it leads a peacekeeping force, as well as Afghanistan, lamented Guido Moteldo, editor-in-chief of the centre-left magazine Europa.

"Aside from
Israel, with myriad parties unable to form lasting coalitions, there are few examples in the world of such governmental instability," he told AFP.

Napolitano, a former communist, met with several party leaders and three past presidents.

If Napolitano asks Prodi to stay on, the first order of business will be to call a vote of confidence in parliament.

While the centre-left has a comfortable majority in the lower house, it has only a one-vote advantage in the Senate. However, centre-left party leaders said Thursday they would rally their lawmakers to back Prodi in a confidence vote.

The president could also choose a new government leader from the coalition, appoint a technocrat government or dissolve parliament and call new elections.

Sergio Romano, a leading Italian political analyst based in Milan, said: "Prodi is using an argument that is right now very strong: 'Do we want to help Berlusconi regain power?'"

The Refoundation Communists "don't want to be considered responsible," he told AFP.

Although Prodi was elected on pledges to revive Italy's economy and and rein in a gaping budget deficit, his opinion poll standing has plunged since the unveiling of an austerity budget.

Prodi's unwieldy coalition also includes centrist Catholics who are uncomfortable with some initiatives affecting the family, notably the issue of civil unions for unmarried couples including gays.

Prodi, head of Italy's 61st government, was also prime minister for two years and five months in 1996-98, falling when communists withdrew support.

In the short term, Romano said, Prodi is likely to stay on. "But the real question is will the new agreement ... be strong enough to hold water during the next problem?

"This may just be one stage in the process of a much longer crisis," he said.
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