Italy goes 'from crisis to farce' as Berlusconi refuses to resign

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi confirmed his reputation for unpredictability last night when he failed to resign as prime minister.

After caving in to the demands of a coalition partner who had pulled his ministers out of the government on Friday, he had been expected to go through a time-honoured Italian procedure in such cases whereby the prime minister meets the president, ritually hands in his resignation, and is then re-appointed.

Mr Berlusconi went to see President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the head of state, but told ANSA wire service that he had not submitted his resignation.

His behaviour prompted an outraged reaction from Piero Fassino, the leader of the Democratic Party of the Left, the biggest opposition party, who spoke of "a crisis that is being transformed into an indecent farce."

"With his behaviour, the premier is making a mockery of his coalition, the institutions and the whole country at once," he said.

Earlier the government appeared close to disintegrating after Mr Berlusconi tried and failed to persuade disillusioned coalition parties to come back into the centre-right House of Liberties coalition that has ruled Italy for the past four years, but without offering concessions.

The crisis was precipitated on Friday by the two parties, the UDC (Democratic Union of the Centre, a rump of the old Christian Democrats) and the New Italian Socialist Party, which pulled out of the government after Mr Berlusconi had refused to make drastic changes to his cabinet and programme following the disastrous showing of his own party, Forza Italia, in regional elections two weeks ago. Of the 13 regions up for grabs, his party managed to win only two.

The leader of the UDC, Marco Follini, withdrew his party's four ministers from the government. He said the party would continue to support the government from outside but analysts saw this as scant consolation for Mr Berlusconi, who would be running what one called a "time-bomb government", running the risk of being sunk from one day to the next depending on the whims of Mr Follini.

Mr Berlusconi ducked a meeting with the President on Friday and instead at the weekend met his only remaining firm ally, Umberto Bossi, the leader of the secessionist Northern League. Fortified from that encounter he declared "no more negotiations - either the UDC supports us or we will have a general election."

But after meetings yesterday between leaders of the ruling coalition it looked as if Mr Follini had won the round and obtained a change in government personnel and programme. The alternative could have been a general election at which Mr Berlusconi's party was destroyed.

James Walston, professor of politics at the American University in Rome, commented: "Nobody really wants an election now. It was a question of who blinked first and it looks as if [Mr] Berlusconi has done."

For Mr Berlusconi, the crisis has only been deferred. "He can only make it at the next election if he pulls off a financial miracle, or if the centre-left splits," Professor Walston said.