Amato men meet amid wreckage

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THE Italian government meets today over the wreckage of its attempt to keep erring politicians out of jail, having been rescued by President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro's firm 'no' from the wrath of an indignant public.

The Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, will also have to find a substitute for Carlo Ripa Di Meana, who resigned as environment minister on Sunday, saying the move was 'dangerous' and ill-fitted to reconcile the public with the discredited politicians. 'I can't see how this government can carry on,' Mr Ripa Di Meana added yesterday. 'In my view, its days are numbered.'

Giovanni Conso, the Justice Minister, last night said he was also thinking of resigning, after only a few weeks in office. 'The atmosphere which surrounds us does not allow us to work well,' he said. Mr Conso is a former president of the Constitutional Court and one of Italy's most eminent legal experts, but he clearly lacked the political skills to tackle the problem.

Meanwhile, prosecutions and investigations against hundreds of politicians, entrepreneurs and their go-betweens - which Milan magistrates had warned would be paralysed by the government's decree - continued. Gerardo d'Ambrosio, the Milan deputy public prosecutor, who warned at the weekend that the politicians had decided to 'absolve themselves', praised the President's move as 'a happy decision'.

President Scalfaro, in an unprecedented move late on Sunday, declined to sign the offending decree, for constitutional reasons. He pointed out that since it would change the law on party finances, it clashed with the fact that a referendum on the issue is to be held on 18 April. He suggested that the government should 're-examine' the whole matter.

His elegant move has undoubtedly saved the government from itself and from unforeseeable consequences of its extremely unpopular move.

'Fortunately, in extremis Oscar Luigi Scalfaro has taken in hand a situation which was about to drag the country into a most serious crisis,' the daily La Stampa commented. The consequences, said the Corriere della Sera, could have devastated the state system 'to the limits of survival'.

The reaction was slow in coming. All last week, while the cabinet was working on its 'political solution' to the corruption crisis, the opposition and press were cautious, seemingly unsure what to think of the complex package of measures. It was only at the weekend, when the final text was published and magistrates and legal experts condemned this particular decree outright, that the storm broke.

The government has clearly been weakened by the episode, though there is no sign it is about to fall. Nevertheless, Antonio Cariglia, president of the small Social Democratic Party, a minor coalition member, said the coalition 'should ask itself about the advisability of carrying on'. The opposition Northern League and the neo-fascists called on Mr Amato to resign.

The Prime Minister admitted yesterday that the President's refusal to sign had 'strong constitutional weight' but would only add that the matter would be discussed by the cabinet today.

One option is to turn the decree, which has to be approved or rejected by parliament within six weeks, into a normal bill, which is slower and subject to changes. But, given the opposition to its content, the ministers may decide to change it or scrap it.