Berlusconi lures centre-party defectors

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ITALY'S upper and lower houses cleared the way yesterday for consultations on appointing a prime minister to begin, when they voted to fill outstanding administrative posts in parliament.

Polling proceeded decorously for the posts of Senate and Chamber vice-presidents, unlike the angry scenes that accompanied the vote for house presidents last weekend. Then, there was outrage among opposition parties over the unprecedented insistence of the victorious right-wing Freedom Alliance on its own candidates for both presidencies.

Yesterday's relatively unimportant elections were more relaxed, with the Alliance splitting the four vice-presidencies in each house with the opposition. The only voice of dissent came from the tiny and confusingly named Christian Democrat Centre - minor partners in the Freedom

Alliance.

Peeved at being refused any post of their own in the Chamber, they abstained in a display of independence aimed at forcing Silvio Berlusconi, the Alliance leader, to take them as seriously as their more powerful allies, the neo-Fascists and the federalist Northern League.

Mr Berlusconi, however, seems more interested in the centre outside his Alliance. He succeeded in luring five rebels from one of the two small centre parties, the Pact for Italy, over to his camp yesterday. The deputies defied their leadership after furious internal rows over whether to support the Alliance.

The leader of the rebels, Al berto Michelini, appears to have been won over by Mr Ber lusconi's offer of ministries in return for centrist support. The prospective prime minister is working hard to win outside backing, especially in the Senate, where his Alliance is six seats short of an absolute majority. The upper chamber must vote confidence in any new government, and even then Senators have the power to block lower house legislation indefinitely.

Yesterday's defections are one more humiliation for the Pact's embittered leader, Mario Segni. It was Mr Segni who, by organising overwhelmingly successful referendums, engineered the electoral reforms which buried the old political system. He appeared set to reap the reward when he formed his Pact for Italy to contest the elections. But dithering over possible alliances led to punishment at the polls.

Although the rebels have not formally been expelled from the Pact, Mr Segni knows that of his original, demora lised little band of 13 deputies, only eight loyalists remain. And the number may fall further.

Rosa Russo Jervolino, the chairwoman of the Popular Party, the other centrist group, has spurned Mr Berlusconi's advances, accusing him of buying up support as he would acquire players for Milan, the champion football team he owns. The analogy is a good one. Mr Berlusconi has announced that he wishes his Forza Italia deputies to be referred to henceforth as gli azzurri (the blues) - the name by which Italy's national football team is known.

There was good economic news for Italy's next government yesterday, as a batch of data indicated that the country's economy was gradually emerging from recession.

Gross domestic product rose 0.3 per cent year on year in the fourth quarter of 1993, the first rise in output for more than a year, according to the Natonal Statistics Institute.

'Today's figures point to a technical end to recession,' said Giuseppe Abbotto, an economist with Fimat Futures in Milan. 'But you can't say Italy's really out of recession until employment starts to pick up, and that won't be for at least six to eight months.'

The International Monetary Fund this week predicted Italy's economy would grow by 1.1 per cent this year and 2.5 per cent in 1995, after a 0.7 per cent decline for the whole of 1993.

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