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Berlusconi plays numbers game

There comes a time in every Italian political crisis when it seems only divine intervention can offer a solution. With the lira trading at record lows against the German mark, and investor confidence in Italy plummeting, the stakes are growing hig her bythe day.

Yesterday, as President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro admitted he did not know who he might appoint as prime minister, despite three weeks of consultations, he learnt that the Pope had offered a prayer to wish him success.

Mr Berlusconi seemed to be doing some serious praying himself as he and supporters made a last-ditch stand for his reinstatement. They argued enough centrists and former coalition partners might have drifted back towards Mr Berlusconi in the three weeks since he resigned to guarantee him a new administration.

"We have calculated that there is a chance of a new Berlusconi government," announced Marco Pannella, an independent libertarian and one of the outgoing premier's most ardent supporters.

President Scalfaro, who knows that without Mr Berlusconi's co-operation it will be almost impossible to set up an alternative administration to carry out emergency reforms before new elections, appeared to give the claim some credence, announcing he would give the proposition serious thought.

Mr Berlusconi has done all he can to encourage a split in the Northern League, the volatile party whose defection from the government brought about his downfall last month. He claims a number of League members, with some centrist Christian Democrats, arewilling to join his Freedom Alliance coalition to make up the numbers.

According to the numbers delivered to Mr Scalfaro, support for a "Berlusconi Two" simply is not there. The media mogul will have to hope, as one coalition partner has alleged, that some figures have been fiddled to help the opposition.

Meanwhile, Mr Berlusconi has other worries in his campaign to cling to power. The Constitutional Court made, for him, the worst possible ruling this week on a batch of referendum proposals. It rejected two proposals aimed at eliminating proportional representation from the electoral system, thereby hampering Mr Berlusconi's campaign for a strong executive unencumbered by fractious smaller coalition parties. It also admitted two other proposals addressing the issue of media ownership. If passed, those referenda could force him to sell up to two of his three national television networks - severely weakening one of his most effective political weapons.

Referenda have been virtually the sole means of achieving serious reform in Italy, forcing through legislation on divorce and abortion and, two years ago, taking the first hesitant steps away from the old crony-ridden political system towards a less party-oriented one.

With electoral reform now out of the people's hands and back with parliament, Mr Berlusconi will find it harder to argue for immediate elections if he cannot, or is not allowed, to form a new administration.

Mr Scalfaro might feel more confident about going over Mr Berlusconi's head, hoping he can muster support for an alternative premier. But his task is hardly easy. That prayer from the Pope might come in handy.

Financial markets, page 28