Berlusconi heals breach with president

LEADERS of Italy's new right-wing government coalition are seeking to thaw out relations with President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, after an icy start earlier this week.

The Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, drove to the presidential palace on Thursday evening to tell the President about the programme he planned to outline to the cabinet yesterday. Afterwards he declared that his relations with the President were 'extremely cordial'.

This contrasted strongly with the atmosphere at the swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday. Then, the President, who had already taken the extraordinary step of publicly insisting that the cabinet stick to certain principles of the constitution, was distinctly stiff and unsmiling.

Some neo-Fascists and Il Giornale, the newspaper closest to Mr Berlusconi, dusted off allegations that the President was involved in a big secret service scandal, and demanded that he step down. Gianfranco Fini, leader of the neo-Fascist-dominated National Alliance, tried to damp matters down by stating that 'the presidency is not an issue'.

Roberto Maroni, the new Northern League Interior Minister, about whom President Scalfaro is believed to have been particularly uneasy, sent him an effusive telegram thanking him for his appointment. He pledged to uphold the 'highest constitutional values' and expressed the 'highest esteem' for the President.

The President evidently thought it was time to mend fences. In a published reply he warmly returned the sentiments and wished Mr Maroni all the best in his work.

Mr Berlusconi is due to present his programme to the Senate at the start of the confidence debate on Monday. Although his coalition has an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies, it is several votes short in the Senate. Members of the Popular Party, the remnant of the former Christian Democrats, are divided over whether to support him, or abstain from the vote. It is considered unlikely that the government will be defeated.

Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party has shot up in the opinion polls since the general election in March, strengthening its position as Italy's most popular political force, according to a survey released yesterday.

Forza Italia now commands 25.6 per cent of the vote, up 4.6 points from its standing in the election, the Directa poll said. It said support for other parties had slipped, ahead of the 12 June elections for the European Parliament. Mr Berlusconi's neo-Fascist-led ally, the National Alliance, is still the third force in Italian politics on 12.6 per cent, but is a percentage point down on its general election standing.