Italians reshuffle to avert collapse

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GIULIANO AMATO, Italy's hard- pressed Prime Minister, yesterday made five cabinet changes as he sought to keep his government afloat amid the storm of corruption scandals.

The mini-reshuffle was brought on by the resignations on Friday of the Finance Minister, Giovanni Goria, and the Health Minister, Francesco de Lorenzo. Mr Amato insisted on pushing through the changes yesterday in order to have a full government in place and reassure the money and bond markets when they opened today. The resignations, and the political uncertainty they implied, had badly shaken the markets on Friday.

He nearly did not make it. The whole fate of the government was poised on a knife-edge for several tense hours while Guiseppe Guarino, the Industry Minister, made strong objections to the move and threatened to resign. Even after it was all settled and President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro had approved the appointments, scepticism lingered.

Francesco Cossiga, the outspoken former Italian president, called it a 'government of national hypocrisy heading towards increasingly confused objectives' and a 'desperate defence of the status quo inspired by terror of the future'. Marco Formentini, chief whip of the Northern League, warned that the 'patch-up' could soon fall apart again as corruption investigations continue, because the government represents 'the most discredited part of the political class and of parliament'. Even Carlo Ripa di Meana, the Environment Minister, expressed uncertainty after the cabinet meeting in which the changes were decided, saying: 'Let us hope we get through to tomorrow.'

Mr Goria, a Christian Democrat, who had resigned protesting at 'unjust and unfounded' accusations about his alleged role in a savings bank crash, was replaced by Franco Reviglio, who had been minister for the budget and economic planning. He in turn was replaced by Beniamino (Mino) Andreatta, also a Christian Democrat, who returns to the government after a decade away. He was budget minister in 1979 and treasury minister in the early 1980s.

Mr de Lorenzo, a Liberal, who is himself under investigation but actually resigned over the arrest of his father, a leading professor of medicine, in a corruption scandal, was replaced by a fellow Liberal, Raffaele Costa, who was previously minister without portfolio in charge of community relations and regional affairs. That post went to Gianfranco Ciaurro, also a Liberal and a noted professor of constitutional law.

At the same time Mr Amato sought to take in hand the government's hitherto disappointing progress in privatising Italy's small state-owned firms by appointing Paolo Baratta, a prominent figure in the banking world, to be minister in charge of co-ordinating privatisation and employment. This means extracting these tasks from several other ministries, which will not be easy. The employment responsibility of the new ministry is in response to the huge problems ahead in dealing with the massive over-staffing of these firms, which could be a serious obstacle to their saleability.

Despite the scepticism and sneers, Mr Amato carries on knowing that more of his ministers may fall by the wayside as new scandals are revealed. With the current economic crisis, rising unemployment and a deep mood of disorientation as the post-war political system breaks up, the country badly needs a stable government in charge. And there is no visible alternative: efforts to form a wider-based coalition including the former Communists have failed and fresh elections, at least until the electoral law has been reformed, promise to be both divisive and unproductive.