MPs try to avert judgement day

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The Independent Online
THE ITALIAN Prime Minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, told parliament last night he was prepared to resign, opening the way for fresh elections which are expected to sweep away Italy's discredited political class.

But it was far from certain that parliament would let him go, as members of the former ruling parties renewed their efforts to put off the dreaded day of elections as long as possible.

Mr Ciampi, who has led a transitional government composed largely of technocrats for the past eight months, opened a debate in the Chamber of Deputies which is expected to determine the timing of the elections. The debate has become the focus of byzantine manoeuvrings barely comprehensible to the Italian public, which simply wants to see the old guard out and new clean faces in, as soon as possible.

The debate was on a motion of no-confidence in the government which paradoxically was designed to replace it with another government - also led by Mr Ciampi - and thus put off elections until June. The old guard has accepted that it has no hope of putting them off for the full three years that remain of this legislature.

But since this device showed signs of producing the opposite effect, members of the former ruling parties did a hasty U-turn and tabled a confidence vote, under which the government would simply carry on.

Mr Ciampi, like President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and the speakers of the two houses of parliament, is clearly in favour of speedy elections, which could be held in March. And he told the Chamber that the government read the no-confidence motion as 'an invitation to allow the Head of State to consider the situation with a clear field (and) thus an invitation to resign the mandate conferred on 20 April'.

'The government is extremely attentive to this and is ready to make its decision but not before the end of this debate.' Mr Ciampi thus made it clear he wanted to hear what the parties were saying in parliament before going to see the President. He ignored preparations for a confidence vote.

Precisely when this will be is not clear, but the debate looked likely to go on for at least another day. It could be 'today, tomorrow or the day after', said one minister.

Mr Ciampi stressed that his government had had a 'role as guarantee' of Italy's stability at a time when the disintegration of its political world threatened to damage the economy. It remained committed to this role as long as it was in office. But it did not forget that its task had been to run the country while a new electoral system was put in place. 'Its end was determined in its beginning,' he said. Now 'it has reached that end naturally'.

It is generally assumed that the no-confidence motion was tabled to give the centre-right groupings, and particularly the Christian Democrats, as much time as possible to shape up. And many MPs who know they will never be re-elected want to cling on as long as possible to their seats and privileges - and particularly their immunity from arrest.