Berlusconi imposes his authority with cabinet of cronies and beautiful women

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi's new government was sworn in yesterday afternoon, completing a changing of the guard from the government of Romano Prodi transacted at blinding speed by Italian standards.

Mr Berlusconi left opponents, allies and media observers gasping as he breezed into the head of state's office on Wednesday with a full list of ministers already prepared. Such a thing has never happened before in messy, snail-pace, fudge-happy post-war Italy, where allocating portfolios among a baffling variety of parties often takes weeks.

And over three weeks of talks, Mr Berlusconi has left his coalition allies, the post-Fascist National Alliance and the secessionist Northern League, in no doubt that this time around he will be the boss. The top jobs go to Berlusconi loyalists. Another sure sign of the Forza Italia leader's deciding vote is the fact that all four women in the cabinet are strikingly good looking, and include the former show girl Mara Carfagna, 32 (who has a law degree) as Equal Opportunities Minister.

The average age of the new cabinet is 50, remarkably low for Italy; but the average age of the women ministers – Mr Berlusconi calls them le bambine, "the kids" – is 34.

Mr Berlusconi has been aided in his efforts to speed things up by the fact that the last election, at which he won a handsome majority, saw the number of parties represented in parliament shrink dramatically from 26 to six. He is also aided by Italy's desperate financial situation: with growth close to zero, there is an awareness that tough decisions must be taken.

Neither of the immediate crises awaiting Mr Berlusconi's attention – the imminent bankruptcy of Alitalia, and the rubbish disaster in Naples – offer easy or comfortable solutions. Mr Berlusconi wasted months of parliamentary time between 2001 and 2006 forcing through laws to extract himself from legal difficulties, but this time he must do things differently.

A commanding prime minister is a novelty in post-war Italy. Not any more, says the media billionaire. He can count on loyal cronies in key jobs: Giulio Tremonti is once again his Finance Minister, the multi-millionaire lawyer who in a previous incarnation helped Mr Berlusconi minimise his tax burden now taking on the task of pulling the Italian economy out of recession. Franco Frattini returns from Brussels where he was EU Justice Commissioner to being Foreign Minister as he was for two years in the last Berlusconi government. In the other key job of Justice Minister is Angelino Alfano, equally loyal to Mr Berlusconi, a 38-year-old Sicilian with clean hands and a taste for hard rock. And Roberto Calderoli, the Muslim-baiting League politician who wore a T-shirt illustrated with one of the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohamed was named Minister for Simplification, with the task of eliminating defunct laws.

"I have five years to change the country," Mr Berlusconi said. The outside world may have to adjust to the novelty of a Berlusconi bereft of gags.