Communists threaten to topple Prodi

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The Independent Online
THE FUTURE of Italy's centre-left government hung in the balance yesterday after the Communist allies of Romano Prodi, the Prime Minister, said they would not cast their crucial parliamentary votes in favour of the 1999 budget, which is to be unveiled by the cabinet today.

In a repeat of a stand-off that threatened to topple Mr Prodi from power last autumn, Fausto Bertinotti, the Secretary of the reformed Communist Party, said that a "deaf" government "has refused to listen to any of our requests".

Mr Bertinotti was not, however, speaking for his whole party, a large minority of which praised the draft budget, saying it would defy the party whip and stand by Mr Prodi, but their support was a mixed blessing for the beleaguered Prime Minister. Too few to make up the government's vote shortfall in the lower house, the rebel Communists may well leave Mr Prodi with less room for manoeuvre in his attempts to paper over the cracks in his relationship with Mr Bertinotti, as he did a year ago, with a half-hearted promise to introduce a 35-hour working week.

"It really looks like the government is going to fall," said Silvio Berlusconi, a clearly satisfied opposition leader. Two years and four months into its four- year mandate, Mr Prodi's government is ready to present a cost-cutting budget that has already earned itself unprecedented praise from unions and employers alike.

But the slight rise in pensions, and extensive additions to the list of tax-deductible expenses expected to be announced today have failed to impress Mr Bertinotti's followers. They are demanding a drastic cut in levies on owner-occupied property, the creation of a state agency to hire unemployed workers in Italy's poorer south, the abolition of prescription charges, and free textbooks for all school pupils up to the age of 15.

Without the Communists, Mr Prodi is unlikely to be able to push his budget through parliament and remain in office.

In an offer of help with a sting in its tail, the former president Francesco Cossiga said he would order his handful of centrist supporters in the tiny UDR party to cast their votes in favour of the budget.

But only, he added, if Mr Prodi resigned as soon as the legislation had been approved.