Ciampi looks ahead after big win in reform vote: Prime Minister signals the opening of new stage in Italy's political clean-up

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ITALY headed for what the Prime Minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, called 'Act Two' of its post-war republic after his transitional government last night comfortably won a confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies.

The government's programme, in which the priorities are electoral reform and the revival of the economy, was passed by 309 votes to 60, with a remarkable 185 benevolent abstentions by parties such as the former Communists and the Northern League, which are loath to join in with the discredited establishment parties but support its aims. It was the first time, its leader Umberto Bossi said, that the Northern League had not voted against a government.

The votes in favour came from the four traditional government parties, the Christian Democrats, Socialists, Social Democrats and Liberals, which were joined by the six members of the European Federalist party led by parliamentary enfant terrible Marco Pannella, and by Mario Segni, the leader of the successful referendum campaign for electoral reform.

The 'noes' came mainly from the neo-fascists and the hardline Rifondazione Comunista: it was the second smallest number of 'no' votes in the post-Second World War history of the chamber. Among the few absent members was Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist prime minister whose success in having the chamber retain his immunity from prosecution on major corruption charges caused a nationwide outcry and brought deep discredit on the House. The anti-Mafia grouping, La Rete, which has boycotted parliament since then, did not take part in the vote. The Senate is to debate the programme next week.

Mr Ciampi, who until last week was the governor of the Bank of Italy, showed political skill which some commentators in the financial world did not imagine he had. He pleased the ex-Communists, Northern League and other reform-oriented groups by promising to have electoral reform by the summer. And to the crisis-stricken Socialists, particularly, and Christian Democrats who dread the prospect of this being followed by general elections in the autumn, he gave the assurance that what happens after the reforms is for parliament and the president to decide.

And to sweeten the pill further, Mr Ciampi, whose cabinet contained few parliamentarians and many learned professors and other 'technicians', insisted that Italy could not write off everything that had happened since the war. 'No country can renege on 50 years of history and progress only because of phenomena of degeneration,' he said, referring to the corruption scandals. 'We must confirm what is positive in our past and shake off what has been bad.'

THIRTY-NINE alleged Mafia criminals were arrested early yesterday in a roundup in and around Messina in Sicily involving police, carabinieri and the army with helicopters, naval vessels and tracker dogs.