Berlusconi fights back with broadside at left

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi launched his new government with an attack on what he called "the hegemony of the left" in the Italian media and the judiciary.

Silvio Berlusconi launched his new government with an attack on what he called "the hegemony of the left" in the Italian media and the judiciary.

"The Italians have common sense," he said, "they don't want to hand over the reins of government, too, to the left, because democracy is founded on checks and balances and they know [with the left in power] there would not be full democracy."

In a barn-storming performance, interrupted by howls and whistles from the opposition, he warned the left, "don't kid yourselves that you have already won ... We are about to launch ourselves on an extraordinary year, towards a victory like that of 2001." The Italian prime minister was forced to call for a vote of confidence in both houses of parliament after the defection from his coalition of the centrist Union of Christian Democrats (UDC) two weeks ago forced him to resign and form a new government with a new mandate.

The confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies was won 334-240 by his centre-right coalition.He faces a vote in the Senate today.

In his speech, he promised to carry out not only all the promises of his government that fell when he resigned, but also the new ones that he took on when he formed his new administration: but they are vague promises to help the family, business, and the impoverished south.

Mario Follini, the head of the UDC, whose party colleagues are back in government - including Rocco Buttiglione, who was rejected last year as European commissioner because of his conservative, Catholic views, when he was minister of culture - made it clear in his speech that he remains sceptical about Mr Berlusconi's leadership.

Mr Follini - a former deputy prime minister who decided to stay out of the cabinet - said: "We can't roll towards the general election of 2006 along a gentle slope as if everything was already decided."

Crucial factors yet to be decided, he said, included the leadership of the centre-right. "The road to recovery will be long and steep," he said, "and those who want to win again have the duty to warn that there are no short cuts."

Mr Follini's chilly welcome reflects the feeling of many on both sides of Italian politics that the regional elections at the beginning of April - at which, according to centre-left leader Francesco Rutelli, three million voters shifted from the right to the left - was the knell of doom not merely for Mr Berlusconi's government but for Berlusconi as a national leader.

Mr Berlusconi also faces trouble on the legal front. On Tuesday, Milan prosecutors requested indictments against him and 12 others, including the husband of the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, on charges including tax fraud and embezzlement, after a four-year investigation into the premier's media empire.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Rome yesterday began examining the car in which an Italian secret service agent, Nicola Calipari, was travelling in Iraq on 4 March when a US patrol at the roadside opened fire, killing him.

Mr Calipari had just obtained the release of Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist who had been held hostage in Iraq for a month, and was taking her to Baghdad airport to be repatriated when the shooting occurred.

Italy has 3,000 peacekeepers in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah but the killing of Mr Calipari tested the resolve of the coalition severely. Before the regional elections, Mr Berlusconi said that he intended to begin pulling the troops out later this year.

Mr Berlusconi's vaunted friendship with President George Bush was tested yet again this week when a senior Pentagon official told journalists that the official inquiry into the killing of Mr Calipari was going to exonerate the soldiers who fired upon the vehicle.