A radiant Berlusconi awaits his moment

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The Independent Online
THE battle to form an Italian government begins in earnest this week after the right-wing Freedom Alliance won the opening skirmish over the election of speakers for the two chambers of parliament at the weekend. But the traditions of political consultation and horse-trading mean that President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro will have to wait until tomorrow at least before naming the Prime Minister designate.

The President will wait for the parliamentary parties to settle in and agree informal alliances before meeting each party's or alliance's leader for the consultations habitual before any Italian government is born. Only then will he ask one man to try to form a government - probably on Thursday evening or Friday. Few people are holding their breath, however. There is little doubt that the first Prime Minister of the Second Republic will be Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Forza Italia, the senior partner in the Freedom Alliance, the biggest block in parliament.

Mr Berlusconi himself appears untroubled by doubt. 'I am waiting for the President to confer on me the post of Prime Minister,' he said on Sunday night in Milan, where he was celebrating the triumph of the football team he owns. Milan have just won the Italian League Championship for the third year in a row, capping the tycoon's political successes. A radiant Mr Berlusconi took the opportunity to apply some footballing wisdom to the matters of state. 'Italy should apply the philosophy which has brought this team so many victories: a philosophy of perseverance, of sacrifice, of work and respect for one's opponent,' he said.

The Alliance's powers of perseverance were displayed in its first tussle with parliament last week, when Forza Italia's candidate for speaker, Carlo Scognamiglio, only just scraped through by one vote in the fourth round of voting, ahead of the outgoing speaker Giovanni Spadolini. After his candidate lost to the highly respected Mr Spadolini in the first round on Friday, Mr Berlusconi had threatened fresh elections if the Senate, where the Alliance is six votes short of an absolute majority, proved obstructive. In an effort to avoid similar embarrassments in the future, Mr Berlusconi yesterday began talks aimed at winning the support of the Italian Popular Party - the rump of the old Christian Democrats.

If the talks succeed, and this is uncertain because the centre parties have rejected past overtures from the Alliance, it would bring an added advantage to the image-conscious Mr Berlusconi. The presence of the centre would go some way towards balancing the extreme-right bias given to the Alliance by the neo-fascists and the Northern League. The left-wing daily La Repubblica yesterday carried the dismayed Israeli reactions to the election of Irene Pivetti, the League's candidate for speaker of the chamber of deputies. Although Ms Pivetti denies being anti-Semitic, comments made by her, and widely reported in Italian newspapers, have been cited as cause for concern in the Anti-Semitism World Report.

The Alliance's three leaders, Mr Berlusconi, Umberto Bossi of the Northern League, and Gianfranco Fini of the neo-fascist National Alliance, are to meet tomorrow to discuss sharing out ministries. One candidate much tipped by Italian newspapers for the Foreign Ministry, is Antonio Martino, Forza Italia's Thatcherite economist.