Caretaker PM sets out bold vision to reform Italian politics

ANDREW GUMBEL

Rome

It was the moment of truth that Italy had been anticipating for weeks. On Tuesday night, at the end of a five-day trip to the United States, Lamberto Dini addressed a Washington think-tank and outlined the kinds of thing he might like to do if parliament asked him to stay in office once he had completed his temporary mandate.

"I was not, and am not, a career politician," the Prime Minister insisted. But the content of his proposals to the Council of Foreign Relations told a very different story. He laid out a seven-point plan for reform intended to revolutionise the way politics is conducted in Italy and bring real stability to the country for the first time since the Second World War.

Yesterday, as he glanced at the Italian newspaper headlines on his way home, it must have been clear that a politician is exactly what he has become. Commentators who have long forecast a political epiphany for Mr Dini excitedly discussed his chances of finding parliamentary support for his programme, and speculated that the general elections initially expected some time before the end of this year might yet be put off until late 1996 or 1997.

Among Mr Dini's proposals were a new electoral law, abolishing the last traces of proportional representation in favour of a pure first-past-the- post system, a redefinition of the roles of the two houses of parliament, greater regional autonomy and an increase in the power of the Prime Minister to control his own cabinet.

Yesterday both left and right were forced to concede broad agreement with Mr Dini's aims, although there were signs of discomfort at being upstaged. The centre-left leader, Romano Prodi, wondered where Mr Dini would look for parliamentary support for his proposals, while the far- right leader, Gianfranco Fini, said that the country needed elections before considering such weighty issues.

In theory, Mr Dini is due to resign in a few weeks once the final plank of his original mandate - a new set of rules on political access to the media - is in place. It will then be up to President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro to reappoint him, appoint someone else or call new elections.

The notion of Mr Dini staying on is not new, but it had been assumed that he would merely maintain his non-political caretaker role to see out Italy's term as president of the European Union in the first half of next year.

The signs have been building nevertheless of a growing involvement with the nuts and bolts of party politics. His 1996 budget, unveiled last month,bore clear signs of compromise with the left-wing parties which have been supporting him in parliament.

At the same time, the leadership of each of the main political coalitions has been thrown into question. On the centre-left, there are fears that Mr Prodi is not tough or tele-genic enough to be an effective candidate. On the right, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi risks being put on trial on charges of tax fraud and might prefer to allow someone else to run in his place.

Among the names being mentioned as possible replacements are Mr Dini himself, and Antonio Di Pietro, the popular former anti-corruption magistrate. Mr Di Pietro has yet to make a clear declaration of political intent, however.

As an unelected prime minister, Mr Dini might be an anomaly, but as a crisis manager he is probably is the best option for Italy. For the past year, the country has been caught in an awkward paradox: without elections it cannot achieve political stability, but the country needs political stability in order to con-duct effective elections. Mr Dini has seen a way of beating the paradox: it remains to be seen if he will be allowed to do so.

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