Berlusconi wins first round in battle to grab more power

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi won the first round of his pursuit of yet more powers yesterday when Italy's lower house of parliament voted for a package of constitutional reform. Outside Italy Mr Berlusconi is routinely referred to as the nation's prime minister but the proper term in Italian is il presidente del consiglio ­ president of the council of ministers. The difference is significant.

Silvio Berlusconi won the first round of his pursuit of yet more powers yesterday when Italy's lower house of parliament voted for a package of constitutional reform. Outside Italy Mr Berlusconi is routinely referred to as the nation's prime minister but the proper term in Italian is il presidente del consiglio ­ president of the council of ministers. The difference is significant.

As presidente, Berlusconi is "primus inter pares". He can negotiate between factions but is unable to hire or fire ministers. When the constitutional package becomes law ­ after two approvals by both houses of parliament ­ he will become Italy's first primo ministro all'inglese, or prime minister in English style.

There is little argument that Italy's post-war governments have been short of muscle power, with the Presidente reduced to a harassed, pleading referee between the feuding factions that provide him with a majority. The previous centre-left government also wanted to change the constitution. "We're not against the idea of a prime minister," explained Luciano Violante, head of the largest opposition party, the Left Democrats, "but we're against the reduction of that to government by one man."

Mr Violante said yesterday the true model for Italy's top job, as re-fashioned by Mr Berlusconi, was neither Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder or Jacques Chirac but Vladimir Putin, one of Mr Berlusconi's closest political friends. Similar to Mr Blair, the Russian president has enjoyed Mr Berlusconi's hospitality at his lavish villa in Sardinia. And during Italy's term of the European presidency last year, Mr Berlusconi embarrassed the European Commission by exculpating Mr Putin from blame in Chechnya.

Under the proposals passed yesterday, Italy's prime minister will not be chosen by the president of the Republic but by popular vote. His powers will be wide-ranging within the government. Less a political leader, say the centre left, than the boss of a corporation ­ a job with which Mr Berlusconi is more familiar. It has been assumed in Italy, and never denied by Mr Berlusconi, that his ambition is to be president: not in its ribbon-snipping present form, but with the sort of powers enjoyed by the President of France.

According to an article in the magazine L'Espresso yesterday, he is now planning to sell off all or part of his television empire to rob the opposition of their most potent weapon against him. The article claims he has also become disillusioned with the political power of television.

It is his dominance of the airwaves that has, it is supposed, given Mr Berlusconi such formidable power to dictate the nation's political debate. But the obvious conflicts of interest between being prime minister and owner of one of the country's biggest corporations have constantly provided his enemies with ammunition.

Mr Berlusconi has also, it is said, become disillusioned with the power of television to enable him to get his way. And now he has become convinced that only by getting rid of much of his television holdings will he be able to progress to the spendid Quirinale, the former palace of the popes in Rome which is the president's official residence.

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