Berlusconi tries to derail Prodi's crucial budget vote

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Romano Prodi faces his toughest test since becoming Prime Minister of Italy as he struggles to get his budget voted into force by a Senate in which the centre-left government has a majority of only two.

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the opposition and head of the biggest party in Italy, has been seeking to prise away from the centre-left benches the handful of senators necessary to defeat the government.

His chief target is Lamberto Dini and his close allies. Mr Dini is a former prime minister and governor of the Bank of Italy who was finance minister in Mr Berlusconi's first government. Mr Dini has already declared himself to be a free spirit, no longer beholden to Mr Prodi. But analysts yesterday doubted whether he would want to bring the government down on such a fundamentally important matter as the budget.

Mr Berlusconi is also seeking to tempt more unhappy senators across to his side of the house. "I continue to believe this government will fall," he reportedly said yesterday to close colleagues. "You can be sure it's going down..."

But acting as if he does not fully believe his own words, he launched a campaign with full-page newspaper advertisements yesterday, urging five million people to sign a petition demanding a general election.

"The present parliament," he wrote in a letter to the Italian people, "is the expression of a historical moment in which the nation was divided politically... but now everybody knows this doesn't represent the real country... The overwhelming majority calling in a loud voice for political change."

But Mr Berlusconi faces an even bigger challenge than Mr Prodi. Despite there being a government that, he says, has lost the support of 80 per cent of the people, he has not been able to deliver the coup de grâce.

And while Mr Prodi made it clear months ago he will retire when he steps down as prime minister, for Mr Berlusconi the future holds nothing but uncertainty.