Italy's Olive Tree coalition begins to crack

Having taken 50 years to reach power, one might have thought the Italian left would be content to govern in peace, concentrate on lasting the full five-year parliamentary term, introduce real and lasting reforms, and above all avoid the kind of fratricidal inter-party squabbling that undid so many coalition governments in the bad old days of the Cold War.

None of the winners of April's general election would dispute that aim, at least in theory. But the spectacle of Italian politics over the past week or so tells a very different story: brought up with the culture of the old system, the centre-left parties who make up the governing Olive Tree coalition just cannot seem to resist lunging for each other's throats.

It is as though the old rhythm of Italian politics, whereby governments would start falling apart within a few weeks and collapse in less than a year, was still ticking inside politicians' heads. The main governing party, the left-wing PDS, is split over the future direction of the party. The Communist far left is successfully applying pressure on the government over the economy, to the fury of the centre. And the centre itself cannot decide if it wants to stay indefinitely in the ruling coalition or else try to establish a revamped version of the old Christian Democrat party.

The result of these disputes is not chaos - yet - but still makes for a depressing spectacle when the government is barely out of the starting blocks. "The honeymoon is over," Prime Minister Romano Prodi admitted yesterday. "Usually such things last six months, but in our case we got no more than five weeks."

Partly, the rifts have been brought on by difficult policy decisions, but partly they have been self-inflicted. The trouble began within the PDS, which waited no more than a few weeks after its historic election victory to start arguing about the best way to shed the last vestiges of its Communist past.

One faction, led by Deputy Prime Minister Walter Veltroni, advocates converting the Olive Tree coalition into an Italian equivalent of the United States Democrat Party. The PDS's secretary, Massimo D'Alema, meanwhile, wants to dump the hammer-and-sickle insignia in the party logo and broaden its outlook, but he has insisted on maintaining separate identities for the left and the centre.

This might seem an arcane argument, and would no doubt have created few waves had the PDS still been in opposition, but coming from the ranks of the government in the volatile political culture of modern Italy, it is proving unnervingly divisive.

Then, in the early days of last week, came the first serious policy dispute, over the economy. Mr Prodi presented a two-year programme intended to rein in the country's calamitous public finances and prepare as rapidly as possible for European monetary union. Almost immediately, the far-left Rifondazione Comunista, on which the government depends to make up a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, objected to planned wage constraints on public sector workers and, after engineering defeats for the programme in six parliamentary committees, successfully negotiated a looser deal.

This in turn provoked howls of protest from business leaders and the political centre, since the success of Italy's austerity programme depends on keeping inflation under control. The numbers involved were scarcely shocking - the dispute was over a 3 per cent versus a 2.5 per cent ceiling for wage rises - but the political fall-out was palpable.

It was a chastened Mr Prodi. "I too can sense the rise in temperature," he said, "but this is an old fever contracted during the old days which can no longer do so much harm because we now have new antibodies." Then he added: "The truce is over, and from now on we can count only on ourselves."

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