Scalfaro emerges as curb on new leader: Yann Tessier, of Reuters, says that Silvio Berlusconi may have to temper his ambitions

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The Independent Online
ROME - The President of Italy, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, has delivered a series of public rebukes to the new Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and is emerging as a figure likely to temper the ambitions of the conservative media tycoon.

A battle over the state broadcasting group, RAI, last week brought home how Mr Scalfaro was using his powers to limit what Mr Berlusconi's critics say is his government's 'winner-takes-all' attitude. The row, which risked embarrassing Italy as it prepared to host this week's summit of the world's seven richest nations, was defused over the weekend but commentators said further clashes were likely over a key appointment at the Bank of Italy.

'The presidency and the Prime Minister's office are on a collision course,' said La Repubblica, Italy's top-selling newspaper. 'The logic of politics leads us to expect the worse.' In a rare step Mr Scalfaro refused to sign a decree sanctioning RAI's deficit, saying it contained a clause that was unconstitutional. The clause gave the government the right to fire RAI's board and brought angry protests from the opposition. Mr Scalfaro signed a modified version of the decree, but spoke of 'obvious contrasts with the constitution'.

Giuliano Ferrara, a former Berlusconi television anchorman who is also Minister for Relations with Parliament, played down the clash. 'We are not at war,' he said.

In a letter published just before Mr Berlusconi formed his cabinet, Mr Scalfaro warned him not to make any appointments that would damage Italy at home or abroad. Mr Berlusconi is allied with the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance, whose presence in the cabinet has sparked world concern.

Shortly after Mr Berlusconi's Freedom Alliance won the general elections in March, Mr Scalfaro accused Mr Berlusconi of committing a grave breach of conduct by threatening to hold new polls if his allies did not win key parliamentary posts.

Mr Scalfaro is a former Christian Democrat, the party that was the keystone of the old guard. Mr Berlusconi, owner of a business empire that spans television, retailing and soccer, says his large majority gives him the right to govern decisively.

Political commentators said yesterday that the next test could come over the appointment to the post of number two at the Bank of Italy, a job left vacant when Lamberto Dini became Treasury Minister. The appointment must be sanctioned by Mr Scalfaro and is being anxiously awaited as a test of the central bank's ability to keep its hard-won independence. Mr Berlusconi reaffirmed his administration's commitment to an independent Bank of Italy but indicated that the government also wanted a hand in deciding who gets the vital job.