Neo-Fascist's stock rises as Berlusconi flounders

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ROME - Silvio Berlusconi's key coalition partners were at loggerheads as he prepared to address parliament over his spat with magistrates and his plans to distance himself from his business empire. Commentators said they expected Mr Berlusconi to use the address to try to put out brushfires caused by some of his recent moves.

Support for the beleaguered prime minister has dropped while neo-Fascist leader Gianfranco Fini's popularity has skyrocketed, according to the latest opinion poll. The survey by the SWG polling institute for Famiglia Cristiana weekly magazine said only 21.4 per cent would vote for the media magnate turned politician if they could directly elect Italy's prime minister.

When asked the same question last February, just over a third had said they would chose Mr Berlusconi. The poll said 20.3 per cent would now vote for Mr Fini, up from 8.7 per cent six months ago.

The clash between Mr Fini, who heads the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance and the Northern League's Umberto Bossi occurred in a radio interview when he accused Mr Bossi of effectively working against the coalition's interests by slamming Mr Berlusconi's controversial plan to put his pounds 4.5bn-a-year Fininvest company in the hands of a blind trust.

'It is obvious that the opposition will find some way to criticise what Berlusconi proposed but it is politically much more grave that Bossi, a coalition leader, concurs,' Mr Fini said.

Mr Bossi, who has been a political thorn in Mr Berlusconi's side since he joined the media magnate's conservative government when it was formed on 10 May, opened fire again over the weekend.

He said Mr Berlusconi's plan 'just doesn't stand up' and that the League would propose its own plan whereby the tycoon's assets would be run by a special foundation for five years.

Mr Fini accused Mr Bossi, who has made it clear from the start he will not let the League play second fiddle to Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, of playing into the hands of the opposition through continued open dissent.

Pierferdinando Casini, head of the tiny Christian Democratic Centre, which has two seats in Mr Berlusconi's cabinet, also said Mr Bossi should mind his political manners. 'A bit of criticism within the coalition is logical. But at some point this should stop and give way to responsibility for the common good of the country,' said Mr Casini, whose group split from the old scandal-tainted Christian Democrats this year. Mr Fini said the coalition was healthy but should concentrate on governing and avoid internal squabbles.