Berlusconi launches new 'people's party'

Silvio Berlusconi has stunned Italian politics by announcing the dissolution of Forza Italia, Italy's largest party, founded by him nearly 14 years ago, and its replacement by "the Party of the People" or "the Party of Freedom".

The media mogul, Italy's richest man and the only Italian prime minister since the war to rule for five consecutive years, told crowds of supporters in Milan on Sunday night: "The time has come. Today a great new party is officially born. The people are ahead of us and they demand it. Cast away hesitation and fear. Enough of wig-wearers and professional politicians. We have collected seven and a half million signatures, and only half of those come from [supporters of] Forza Italia. That's the demonstration that there is no reason to wait any longer."

The signatures, he went on, were in favour of "new elections and to elect a new government which will be in harmony with the citizens and know how to govern". He would continue collecting signatures, he said, "all next week because the people in every region want it. We say no to a government that is under the dictatorship of the extreme left." Forza Italia, he went on, "will dissolve. [But] certainly it's a name that has counted."

Of his allies in his "House of Liberties" centre-right coalition that ruled from 2001 to 2006, he said: "I hope they will all join, none excluded, because we will be the protagonists of democracy and freedom for decades to come ... We will go forward with the force of the people."

It was an extraordinary performance by the man whose knack for theatrical surprise has repeatedly allowed him to seize the initiative in a political world divided between some 155 parties big, small and minuscule, and whose preferred mode of decision-making consists of the stitching of deals between the apparatchiks of different groups.

Mr Berlusconi has always refused to acknowledge Romano Prodi's victory in the election of April 2006, which was closely fought and concluded with the centre-left obtaining a razor-thin majority in the Senate. But although Mr Prodi has once been obliged to resign after losing a Senate vote – he was reappointed the following day – Mr Berlusconi's oft-repeated desire to bring down the government with one hefty shove has failed. When the Budget was passed last week with relative ease it was seen by Mr Berlusconi's allies as well as his enemies as the end of the road for his negative tactics.

Now Mr Berlusconi has once again tried to seize the high ground by going, like an improbable Jacobin, to the one constituency he has always depended on, the people. The invitation to join his new grouping was immediately spurned by Gianfranco Fini, leader of the "post-Fascist" National Alliance, and deputy prime minister and foreign minister in his government. "The way he launched the party doesn't interest us," Mr Fini said yesterday. "Join his party? We're not even talking about it."

Some detect a steely and rational resolve behind Mr Berlosconi's move. An electoral law drafted by a Northern League member of his former government has given extra power to small parties and made effective government almost impossible, as Mr Prodi has found. By severing himself from the minnows of his coalition (Mr Fini's party has 12 per cent of the vote), Mr Berlusconi may have taken the first step towards entering into talks with the newly born mass party of the centre-left, the Democratic Party, to draft a new electoral law which would restore effectiveness to government.

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