Italian alliance starts patching things up

THE LEADERS of Italy's fractious right-wing alliance showed signs yesterday of patching up the dispute over policy and power-sharing that had threatened to kill off the new government before it was born.

Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon and senior partner in the alliance, gave a placatory interview to the pro-Northern League daily L'Indipendente in which he expressed confidence that an agreement would be reached.

Mr Berlusconi, in a sweetener to his disaffected Northern League allies, said that 'federalism is a serious issue . . . it is obvious (from the result of the vote) that no government essentially hostile to the development of federalism would have political credibility'.

He repeated his commitment to separate his business empire from his political activities - another of the League's main demands.

At the same time, Mr Berlusconi's two allies, Umberto Bossi, the League's raucous leader, and Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the neo-fascist National Alliance, met face to face for the first time after months of spitting insults at each other.

'It was a positive meeting,' Mr Fini declared afterwards. He said that the talks had centred on the League's demands for a swift move to federalism, to which the neo-fascists have been staunchly opposed. However, although the two sides are now talking to each other, they remain a long way apart.

'We can only accept federalism within a presidential system,' Mr Fini added. He has proposed the creation of a strong, directly elected presidency on the French model.

Mr Berlusconi's abrupt rupture of talks with the League on Tuesday, and his threat to return to the polls, after a spate of attacks by Mr Bossi, appears to have concentrated minds. Mr Bossi had said he would consult the leaders of the minor parties in Rome yesterday, with a view to forming an alternative alliance.

A factor behind his change of heart must be the findings of two opinion polls which indicate that Mr Bossi's on-off approach to entering government with his partners is turning voters against him.

Were the elections to be held again today, the polls suggest, the Northern League's vote would slip to 6 per cent from the 8.4 per cent it won in the proportional part of the ballot. Backing for Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia had risen to 22.8 per cent from 21 per cent.

After playing the successful entrepreneur and family man to perfection, Mr Berlusconi is polishing up his statesman's persona.

'Are we prepared to end these personal attacks, these attempts to deny the will of the electorate? I hope so.

'I ask nothing for myself, and I await the decision of the head of state (on the appointment of a prime minister) with tranquillity,' concludes Mr Berlusconi in his interview.

The punters seem to love it.

BOSSI ON BERLUSCONI

Before the election:

Berlusconi is a rib from the old regime. He is the front man for (Bettino) Craxi (the disgraced socialist leader).

Berlusconi's men are nothing to do with us, they are the left-overs from the old regime. We have nothing to do with him.

After the election:

We are in a dangerous situation for democracy. Berluskaiser is used to having everything his own way. He has too much power concentrated in his hands.

I could enter government with 'Napoleon', but with my hands tied the whole time, I'd end up having to head-butt him

BERLUSCONI ON BOSSI

Before the election:

Bossi's people are our people. They are blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh, we are united.

After the election:

Bossi is losing credibility. He is the Vanna Marchi of Italian politics (a female television personality notorious for promoting dubious products).

Bossi is untrustworthy. He is trying to play the sordid power games of the old regime. He is betraying the voters.

Bossi is as dangerous and unpredictable as a wounded wild boar.

(Photograph omitted)

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