They'd come to Rome's Piazza San Giovanni, which has hosted some of the biggest rallies in Italian history, but they had always been rigorously left wing. "Now this piazza belongs to us" shouted Mr Berlusconi from an immense stage as the crowd roared with appreciation. The rally was a show of force by the opposition to revive its spirits after the formation of Italy's new government, led by Massimo D'Alema, a left-winger. It was also an outpouring of frustration after having seen hopes of new elections dashed. Organisers said the turnout was 1.2 million, the police offered no estimate and the press settled for a million.
The build-up as the middle-class crowd filled the piazza, was in typical Berlusconi style; Gabriella Carlucci, a television showgirl, accompanied the crowd in a sing-along of old favourites such as "Volare"| and "Arrivederci Roma" before the political fireworks began.
"Our democracy has been wounded" said Mr Berlusconi solemnly, accusing Mr D'Alema of having tricked the electorate and become prime minister through political horse trading, rather than earning it through the polls. Gianfranco Fini, head of the right-wing Alleanza Nazionale, criticised President Scalfaro for encouraging the birth of a government that is "formally but not morally legitimate".
Another target of the political leaders, and the crowd, was Francesco Cossiga, founder of the small, moderate UDR party which made Mr D'Alema's government possible. "UDR, traitors, cheats, lackeys of the left" read one banner.
Most of the UDR members were originally elected on the opposition ticket. Behind the allegations of treachery and old-style political games that are levelled at Mr Cossiga is also a healthy dose of fear. It is no secret that the 70-year-old former President is seeking to re-create, under a different guise, the now defunct Christian Democrat party. This would mean securing the support of the moderate Catholic element in both the opposition and the government.
Prime Minister D'Alema, who made his foreign debut at last weekend's summit of EU leaders in Austria, is well aware of the risks. One of the ways of neutralising Mr Cossiga would be to reform Italy's electoral law, removing the small proportional quota and making it a straight first-past- the-post system.
In his speech to parliament Mr D'Alema appealed to Mr Berlusconi for dialogue on this issue. While that request seems to have been rejected for now, Mr D'Alema has had a surprise endorsement from another opposition force.
The pro-independence Northern League, which has been in self-imposed political exile, has announced it will resume an active role in the Rome parliament. During a two-hour speech to the party congress in Brescia, League leader Umberto Bossi told his followers "D'Alema is someone we can negotiate with" adding that "he has the numbers to implement reforms".Reuse content