Berlusconi seizes the initiative by enlarging his Italian alliance

  • @peterpopham

Two months away from a general election forced on the country by the collapse of Romano Prodi's unwieldy coalition, the left and right in Italy were doing their best yesterday to make a virtue of necessity and bring some coherence to a fragmented political scene in chaos.

The former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi seized the headlines with the announcement that he and the post-Fascist National Alliance party would be trading under the single name of Il Popolo della Liberta – the People of Freedom. One of the many floating fragments of the former Christian Democrat party may also come aboard. It marked a new attempt by Italy's richest and most charismatic politician to forge a disciplined electoral force. He has been appealing for allies to join him in "a single unified party" for years. As soon as a general election appeared inevitable, the right hastily buried its differences.

During the five years of Mr Berlusconi's last government, from 2001 to 2006, the components of the centre-right coalition bickered heatedly but not in the murderous manner of the nine separate components of Mr Prodi's coalition. And once again they have decided that they will do what it takes to cohabit, in the interests of victory.

Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, dined with Mr Berlusconi last night and is expected to opt for a looser connection to the new grouping. The centre-right heads towards the election with a solid lead in the opinion polls of 10 to 15 per cent.

But analysts said the right's grouping had been forced on them by the decision of the big new player on the centre-left, the Democratic Party, to stand in the election alone. Yesterday the two most important Italian newspapers, Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, hailed the stance taken by Walter Veltroni, the party's leader and outgoing mayor of Rome.

The general election was "providential", said Corriere della Sera, because it had enabled Italy's centre-left finally to break away from the communists and had forced political leaders to confront the galloping fragmentation of parties.

In the absence of a much-desired new electoral law, that would make it harder for pipsqueak parties to break into parliament; consolidation can only happen on the initiative of leaders such as Messrs Berlusconi and Veltroni.

The manoeuvres leave unanswered the question of what these new formations will commit themselves to doing if they make it into government.

Post-mortems on Mr Prodi's lately expired coalition have focused on the flaccid manifesto the "Union" – as the coalition was optimistically named – produced before the election of 2006.