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Communists balk at `kissing toad'

It was a confidence motion approved with gritted teeth. So unenthusiastic were the 302 centrist and left-wing deputies who yesterday gave the green light to the Italian Prime Minister, Lamberto Dini, and his administration of technocrats that news paperslikened their action to "kissing a toad".

As for the 270 deputies who abstained - most conservative supporters of the outgoing prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi - they could scarcely contain their distaste for a man they fear will upstage them instead of racing towards the early elections they want.

Mr Dini, therefore, begins his extraordinary mission to stabilise Italy as a Prime Minister nobody particularly wants but nobody dares to oppose outright.

Well, nearly nobody. One political party, the diehard left-wing Rifondazione Comunista, hasvoiced its disapproval out loud. The party was responsible for 38 of the 39 "noes" in yesterday's vote, and its leader, Fausto Bertinotti - having successfully overruled doubters in his ranks - was claiming the moral high ground as the only party leader to speak his mind.

"All this talk on the right about refusing to support Dini is just posturing, with no basis in reality," Mr Bertinotti said."Dini has made it because the right, by abstaining, effectively supported him.... "We now have a prime minister whose programme represents total continuity with the Berlusconi government ... It proposes budget cuts and pension reforms that in any other country would be considered a model of conservativism. To support it is to go down quite the wrong road."

These are fighting words from a man increasingly isolated in Italian politics. Rifondazione is the last bastion of Communism in Italy, left behind after most of the old party renounced Marxism and became the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) in 1990.

Mr Bertinotti may not be in fashion but, on the confidence issue at least, he is consistent. Two months ago, the left joined forces to press Mr Dini, then treasury minister, into abandoning his plans to cut state pensions. Now pension reform is back on Mr Dini's agenda, but only Rifondazione appears to have the stomach to fight again.

Massimo D'Alema, the PDS leader, says he is not supporting Mr Dini's policies, only the principle of a technocratic government capable of defending "democratic values". In other words, the PDS sees the true enemy as Mr Berlusconi and his reformed neo-Fascist friends.

Mr Bertinotti is keen to mend the rift with the PDS and present a united left-wing front as an alternative to Mr Berlusconi's Freedom Alliance at the next elections. His refusal to "kiss the toad" may not augur well for co-operation. But his determination to stand up for what he believes makes him, if nothing else, an exception in Italian politics.