League's anti-trust blueprint targets Italy PM

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The Independent Online
The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, came under attack from within his own coalition yesterday as his Northern League allies put forward proposals that would force him to choose between office and business interests.

If the proposals, which the League intends to present as a draft law to parliament, can garner enough opposition votes, Mr Berlusconi could find himself defeated by a coalition ally acting in concert with the opposition. The left- wing opposition parties yesterday said that the plan, under which no member of parliament or government could own a television station, broadly had their support. Now all eyes will be on the small centre parties, who in the past have criticised the Prime Minister bitterly over his conflicts of interests.

If adopted, the law would give Mr Berlusconi six months to sell his three national television stations and the stakes he holds in several pay television stations, or to resign. The plan will be competing directly for passage with a much milder scheme presented by the Prime Minister himself. 'This is not an anti-Berlusconi proposal,' said Antonio Marano of the Northern League. 'We are only seeking to restore balance and pluralism.'

Despite Mr Marano's declaration, the plan is the culmination of a war of words that the League has kept up with Mr Berlusconi over the conflict between his pounds 4bn Fininvest business empire and his political life since the elections in April. The League's rough-spoken leader, Umberto Bossi, has made no secret of his belief that Mr Berlusconi has used his access to television to woo voters away from the League.

'We are heading for a final showdown with Berlusconi all right. We can't afford to lose this battle,' said a senior League source yesterday. The most probable outcome of the looming parliamentary battle, however, is that the League will find itself just short of the necessary votes. There would have to be a degree of solidarity unusual in Italian political ranks for the Prime Minister to be seriously threatened.

The League is likely then to use its proposal as a stick with which to goad Mr Berlusconi into agreeing to toughen up his own plan. The Prime Minister said yesterday that he would present that plan, drawn up by three legal experts at his behest, to parliament as soon as possible. Under his proposals, he would be obliged only to appoint an independent administrator to run Fininvest.