Far from moving smoothly to allocate ministries, as they had predicted last week, the coalition partners yesterday stepped up their war of words in a game of brinkmanship that bodes ill for the formation of a stable administration.
'We are in a dangerous situation for democracy,' declared Umberto Bossi, the raucous leader of the federalist Northern League. 'A party that doesn't exist has won these elections; that is, one man alone. People must realise that in this situation only the League can guarantee democracy.' He was referring to Forza Italia, the party of his supposed ally, Mr Berlusconi, who had slapped down Mr Bossi earlier in the day.
Reminding Mr Bossi that his electoral success was at least partly due to his alliance with Forza Italia, Mr Berlusconi said that his party intended to work towards 'an efficient and authoritative government that represents the majority in its entirety'. In a shot across Mr Bossi's bows, he said any moves by the League's leader to contact minor parties with a view to forming an alternative bloc, would be 're-treading the old road'.
Over the weekend, Mr Bossi had raised the price for his support, insisting on two demands. First, that the new government move without delay towards turning Italy into a federal state, and second, that the post of prime minister must go to his number two, Roberto Maroni.
His demands are unacceptable both to Mr Berlusconi, and Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the neo-Fascist National Alliance (AN). The AN has said it can accept some decentralisation, but remains committed to a central state, and continuing financial help for the south. Moreover, Mr Berlus coni has always made it clear that he was set on being prime minister. It is hard to see how such positions can be reconciled.
Gianfranco Miglio, the League's chief theorist, said yesterday that a government 'will not be formed until the beginning of May'. He added that: 'This coalition is not very cohesive. Comments like Fini's (in a newspaper interview), that Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the century, embarrass us. We need certain reassurances from the neo-Fascists.'
Italian newspapers - from the right- wing La Stampa, which carried the interview, to the left-wing daily La Repub blica - have given wide coverage to the international dismay that greeted Mr Fini's words. Mr Berlusconi, however, has kept quiet over the issue.