Italian parties jockey for position

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SENIOR members of Italy's Freedom Alliance met yesterday to discuss strategy and candidates for the parliamentary posts that remain to be filled.

The contrast with the plight of the opposition parties could hardly have been greater. While the victorious right-wing coalition ironed out the last few disagreements between ambitious deputies, the left-wing alliance was trying to repair the damage done by recriminations over its defeat at the polls, and the two centre parties agonised over whether to accept the Alliance's offer of ministries in return for their support in parliament.

Four parties of the original seven in the left-wing alliance that fought the elections announced yesterday they would remain together as a parliamentary group in opposition. They are: the Democratic Party of the Left (the reformed Communists), the anti-Mafia party La Rete (The Network), the Greens and the small Social Christian Party. But Rifondazione Communista (the hardline Communists), the Socialist Party and the Democratic Alliance (former Republican Party) have peeled off, thereby weakening the opposition.

The centre, meanwhile, was transfixed yesterday by the vision of the poisoned chalice offered it by the Freedom Alliance's leader, Silvio Berlusconi. Mr Berlusconi wants support in the Senate, where his Alliance is six seats short of an absolute majority. Mario Segni, the leader of one of the two centre parties, the Pact for Italy, was adamant on Monday night. 'We will neither join nor support the Berlusconi government,' he said, adhering to a position he maintained throughout the election campaign.

His words were echoed by Rosa Russo Jervolino, the chairwoman of the Popular Party (PPI), the cleaned-up rump of the old Christian Democrats. Yesterday, the party's executive issued a statement reiterating its stance. 'The only choice for the PPI in the face of the coalition government that is on the horizon is that of opposition.'

There are signs of mutiny in the ranks, however. Earlier yesterday Teresio Delfino, a PPI senator, said his party would come to an 'accomodation' with the Alliance, perhaps involving abstention in certain votes 'in order to allow the winners of the election to govern'. Other politicians are tempted by the lure of high office. Alberto Michelini, a Pact for Italy MP and a devout Catholic, has let it be known that he would be keen to take on the Ministry for the Family that Mr Berlusconi is considering setting up.

Mr Berlusconi yesterday suggested that it would take some time to put together his government, even if he is named prime minister by President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro by the end of this week.

Many observers believe that both Mr Berlusconi and the President would prefer to delay the nomination until after next Monday, the anniversary of the nation's liberation from fascism and Nazi occupation. The authorities fear that commemorative marches could turn into a destabilising protest against a right-wing government containing neo-fascists.