Albanian mission puts Italy's government to the test

In the bad old days of revolving-door coalitions and policy decisions steeped in corruption, it used to be said that Italy did not have a foreign policy. Finally, this most unlikely of regional powers has found an international role as head of the multinational peace-keeping force being sent into Albania. But the enterprise is being undermined by that old Italian bugbear - political instability.

Yesterday, after a weekend of futile arm-twisting and backroom haggling, the small but feisty far-left party Rifondazione Comunista confirmed that it would vote against the intervention force in parliament. The decision is not a catastrophe, because Rifondazione is not a part of the centre- left governing coalition and its votes alone are not enough to scupper the operation. But it is still bad news for Romano Prodi, the Prime Minister, who normally relies on Rifondazione to make up his majority in the Chamber of Deputies and was looking for the broadest possible cross-party support to send Italy's 2,000-odd peace-keeping troops confidently on their way.

Instead of a foreign policy triumph, Mr Prodi is faced with a dangerous crack in the architecture of his government. Instead of concentrating on the mission itself, he will have to resort to some low political tricks to ensure it gets off the ground. "Of course I'm fed up with this," Mr Prodi confided in a newspaper interview. "But the interests of the country come ahead of my personal feelings."

The root of the problem lies with the cards Mr Prodi was dealt in last April's general elections. Although his Olive Tree coalition was handed a clear majority in the Senate, it fell just short of 50 per cent in the lower house and so was forced to recruit Rifondazione as a peripheral coalition partner.

Unluckily for Mr Prodi, Rifondazione's leader, Fausto Bertinotti, is an adept master of the art of political brinkmanship - always pushing for that last little concession and forever threatening to withdraw his support if he does not get it.

That explains why Italy's swingeing budget cuts, aimed at qualifying the country for European monetary union on time, have not touched the welfare state, falling back instead on accounting tricks. That largely explains, too, why Mr Prodi and his ministers have often looked so weak - they never know when Mr Bertinotti is going to jump on them next. The Albanian mission is safe because it has the support of most of the opposition, which may abstain in parliament but certainly won't vote against.

But Mr Prodi's government looks less secure, what with various centrist groups clamouring for a rethink of the coalition and the main left-wing party, the PDS, threatening to dissolve parliament if a clear governing majority cannot quickly be re-established.

The irony is that all this has been sparked by a desire to bolster political stability, albeit in a neighbouring country.

Asking Italy to bolster the stability of anything can never be a particularly good idea; but with Mr Bertinotti loving the power of his pivotal position, it looks an impossibility.

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