Italian premier quits, but he might return

Berlusconi resigns, says he'll form same parties into a new government

April 21, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ROME - Closing down Italy's 59th government since World War II, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned yesterday, bending to the demands of his center-right allies for a new government and a change in policy after dismal election results earlier this month.

But he immediately announced during an afternoon address to the Senate that he would form a new government with the same parties to carry out an "updated program" to "defend the purchasing power of families, support businesses and ensure the development of the south."

Yesterday afternoon, Berlusconi went to submit his resignation to President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and to tell the president of his intent to form a new government.

In theory, the president could call early elections or ask someone else from the majority to form a government, but he is expected to give Berlusconi a new mandate to govern, possibly tomorrow.

In his address to the Senate, Berlusconi acknowledged that by punishing the governing majority in regional elections two weeks ago, voters sent a "signal of discomfort" that he would not ignore.

But he played down the political turmoil that broke apart his coalition in the past week, leading one party to pull out several ministers and another to threaten to do the same.

Instead, Berlusconi reaffirmed his coalition's right to govern based on its original national electoral mandate. The new Cabinet, he said, will be "reinforced," suggesting it would not be a copy of the previous one.

Berlusconi appeared confident but it was clear that keeping a new government afloat until his term expires next year will entail traversing a political mine field.

The Northern League, the smallest of the four parties in the governing coalition, vowed that it would not give up control of the Reforms Ministry, which has been a crucial perch from which the league has pressed its federalist agenda. But that same agenda is one of the issues pulling apart the coalition.

"Basically you have a situation where, within the coalition, there are political parties with different skins and with rather opposed perceptions and aspirations," said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at John Cabot University in Rome. "Paradoxically, what Berlusconi will be remembered for is that he put them together."

A second Berlusconi government would mean that the threat of early elections, which the center-right would risk losing, would be postponed. According to polls over the weekend by the daily Corriere della Sera, the government lags five points behind a center-left coalition.

Opposition leaders said Berlusconi's speech skirted any serious analysis of the internal conflicts and added to voter disillusionment. Piero Fassino, the leader of the Democratic Left, the largest opposition party, said Berlusconi would have done better to "allow voters to have their say" rather than form a "photocopy government."

At 1,410 days, Berlusconi's was the country's longest-lasting government since World War II, but yesterday's move ended his chance to be the first prime minister in Italian history to complete a five-year term.

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