Berlusconi calls a ceasefire, but not for long

The health of Italy's new non-party political government looked a little stronger last night as the outgoing prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, called a temporary ceasefire in his campaign to undermine his designated successor, Lamberto Dini.

Mr Berlusconi maintained his threat to vote against Mr Dini's administration in a parliamentary confidence vote next week, but said there was still time to come to terms over the timing of fresh general elections. "There is a period of time, a few days,"

he told a news conference.

Mr Dini, whose 19-member cabinet was sworn in under a political storm cloud on Tuesday night, offered a few compromises of his own. He promised to wind up his interim government as soon as it had carried out the four-point programme it had set itself. Hewas also reported to be considering reinstating the junior ministers who served under Mr Berlusconi - thereby giving his government an overtly pro-Berlusconi political slant.

He stopped short of putting a time limit on his mandate, however, describing his task in terms almost as abstruse as those of his one-time political mentor, Christian Democrat grandee Giulio Andreotti.

"The government which I will propose to parliament does not pretend to be a substitute for political parties, but feels the duty of carrying out an inescapable emergency task, in the expectation that those political forces freely chosen by the electoratewill in due course be in a position to give expression to a government more representative of popular sovereignty," he said.

Mr Dini's convoluted phraseology was a far cry from the blunt language flying around the corridors of power in the past few days. He has been called a traitor by members of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and its reformed neo-Fascist allies in the National Alliance. Mr Berlusconi, meanwhile, has been described by one rival as "the great corrupter".

Mr Dini's principal aim appeared to be to reassure - particularly the financial markets which have been busily selling Italian shares and currency since the storm over his appointment blew up. Italian markets duly recovered their poise yesterday. The Milan bourse closed 1.5 percent higher, recovering from a disastrous start, when it slumped over three per cent at the bell.

"I am confident that the necessary support will be forthcoming to the government once its make-up and intentions have been clarified in a parliamentary debate," he said, with the soothing tones that a lifetime in banking has taught him.

The question is where that support will come from. Mr Dini could have the numbers to start work even without Mr Berlusconi and his friends, but will have to rely on the support of left-wing parties instinctively hostile to his programme of economic austerity and budgetary prudence.

To be at all credible, the Prime Minister will have to woo at least part of Mr Berlusconi's Freedom Alliance whose conservative free-market ideas he largely shares.

He is likely to put up stiff resistance to pressure to put a precise date on the end of his mandate, however. Other considerations aside, the constitution does not recognise any time limit for governments other than the natural life of parliament, set atfive years.

"A government is not a pot of yoghurt. You can't put a sell-by date on it," said Francesco Tabladini, leader of the Northern League party in the Senate.

Mr Berlusconi and his allies may not in the end need to insist on such a deadline. All they need to do to provoke the fall of Mr Dini's government - when they think the time is right - is to withdraw their support definitively. That would probably be enough in itself to provoke a dissolution of parliament.

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