Prodi gets extra time for his government

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The Independent Online
THE FATE of Italy's centre-left coalition government hung in the balance yesterday after its far-left ally, the Rifondazione Comunista party, confirmed that it would not back Prime Minister Romano Prodi in a vote to ratify NATO expansion.

But as the crucial vote approached, so did the kick-off in Italy's World Cup match against Austria. Rather than risking a clash, the House opted overwhelmingly to suspend its session until after the final whistle.

In the event, the government's motion on opening the doors of NATO to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic scraped through thanks to support from a minor centrist opposition party, the UDR.

Though the House approved the government's motion, it did so only after the prime minister was forced to admit publicly that, where foreign policy was concerned, his government cannot count on a parliamentary majority. And with a centre-right opposition buoyed by recent local government gains and playing an attacking game, Prodi may now be feeling that his goal mouth is worryingly under-defended.

The major opposition alliance, led by AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, played a tactical game and voted against NATO expansion yesterday, despite being deeply pro-NATO and, theoretically, firmly in favour of expansion.

Perhaps it cast its vote in pique, having been forced to miss a large chunk of the match when President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro gave Berlusconi's line-up a mid-game appointment to discuss the thorny NATO question.

The fact that the meeting had taken place during the match, said Berlusconi, was "an indication of the gravity of the situation." Despite this noble sacrifice for the good of the country, referee Scalfaro retained his aloofness when Berlusconi's envoys offered to shoot an own goal - in the shape of opposition yes' votes - in exchange for Prodi's resignation.

Scalfaro waved the game on, and, in a determined effort not to lose too many points in the international political credibility championship, Prodi opted to go for extra time.

Within the coalition there are rumblings of discontent about having to depend on unreliable left-wingers, and the prime minister will be under pressure for a show-down with Rifondazione Comunista.

Moreover, with a debate on state support for private schools - a pet hate of Rifondazione - on the political agenda in the near future Prodi may once again find himself outnumbered by the opposing team.