Red-faced communist leader forced to return Prodi government to power

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The Independent Online
Just when everybody thought the Italian government was going to collapse, it didn't. Yesterday, the president sent his prime minister, Romano Prodi, back to work and peace and light broke once more in the ruling centre-left coalition. Almost.

Ten days ago, the leader of the far-left party Rifondazione Comunista, Fausto Bertinotti, denounced next year's budget as a betrayal of the working classes and declared only divine intervention could stop his party from voting against it.

Since Mr Bertinotti's party holds the balance of power in the Chamber of Deputies, his intransigence forced Mr Prodi to tender his resignation. Italy's place among the founder members of the single European currency looked in serious doubt. Yesterday, however, Mr Bertinotti made a formal undertaking to vote for the very same budget, barring a couple of minor cosmetic changes, and pledged to back Mr Prodi for another year at least. The lira bounced up against the mark and dollar and Italy once again looked a half-sensible country.

Mr Prodi magnanimously declared that there were "no winners or losers, just a victory for Italy and common sense". What had in fact taken place was a total humiliation of Mr Bertinotti - carried out by their own grassroots supporters.

Mr Bertinotti's decision to spark the government crisis appears to have been motivated most by concern to push himself and his party into the limelight. What he had not banked on were the feelings of the rank and file, many of whom are working constructively with the mainstream centre- left at local and regional level, who let him know they thought a government crisis and new elections were a very bad idea indeed.

The Rifondazione secretariat convened a lengthy meeting, decided to tell Mr Prodi they were ready to work with him again, and the whole affair came to an end - barring the egg on Mr Bertinotti's face.

Rifondazione did not come away entirely empty-handed. Mr Prodi pledged to work towards a 35-year working week, shaved a fraction off his welfare cuts and rearranged the furniture of his pensions reforms.