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It's not Whitehall, but it's farce

After the collapse of the Italian government, the soap opera of resolving the crisis is in full swing. What is going on? Andrew Gumbel tries to make sense of a weekend of ordinary madness.

Like characters in a stage farce, the protagonists of Italy's crazy political crisis kept bumping into each other by accident this weekend. First there was a special evening at Rome's Teatro Eliseo on Saturday to honour the great Marxist film and stage director Luchino Visconti. Across a crowded foyer, the eyes of Fausto Bertinotti - leader of the far-left Rifondazione Comunista party and chief architect of the government crisis - briefly met those of Sergio Cofferati, union leader and ardent supporter of Mr Prodi's government. They did not speak.

Mr Bertinotti later found himself in the company of a whole clutch of erstwhile government ministers in the VIP section at Rome's Stadio Olimpico for the World Cup qualifier against England. Here, at least, they cheered the home team together, but that was as cordial as relations got.

Then yesterday they were all thrown together for the annual March of Peace in Assisi, an event made more poignant this year because of the recent earthquakes. "Doesn't it bother you the way Bertinotti keeps running into you?" one reporter asked Massimo D'Alema, leader of the left-wing PDS and eminence grise of the Prodi government. "Just as long as he keeps walking, it's OK," Mr D'Alema replied with the sort of elusive grin that has Italian political commentators scrabbling around for profound interpretations for days on end.

Having withdrawn his support for Mr Prodi's budget and thus jeopardised Italy's chances of qualifying for the single European currency next year, Mr Bertinotti seems to be having some trouble walking in a straight line, politically speaking. On Saturday, after a bruising meeting with the party grassroots, he announced that bygones were bygones and that he was prepared to co-operate with Mr Prodi - providing that the budget is rewritten.

This is the sort of position-taking that makes Italian politics utterly incomprehensible to the ordinary mortal. How can a politician bring down a government, and then immediately try to resurrect it? Mr Prodi, for one, was unimpressed and told Mr Bertinotti to forget cooperation on any terms except those already offered.

There were more strange goings on in the opposition, where anticipation of early general elections is growing. Silvio Berlusconi, media mogul, erstwhile prime minister and now opposition leader, made the uncharacteristically self-effacing announcement that he would not seek the premiership again but would prefer to control any government that his side formed from behind the scenes.

This was interpreted as a sign of Mr Berlusconi's weakness after a lacklustre 18 months in opposition. Mr Berlusconi suggested Mario Monti, a European commissioner, as a prime ministerial candidate in his place. But Mr Monti immediately announced he was not interested because he wanted to stay in Brussels. The circus continues.