After weeks of attacks from Silvio Berlusconi and his allies, Italy's President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, broke the discreet silence that goes with the job to fight back this weekend, accusing antagonists of "ignorance, presumption and bad faith".
In an unprecedented outburst, he refused to be intimidated by "useless and damaging rows" and said that only an end to the poisonous insults flying between politicians could restore much-needed stability.
Mr Scalfaro's language appeared to be an attempt to bring Italy back to its senses as it lurches deeper into crisis. The lira has fallen 13 per centagainst the German mark in the past two weeks and looks set to fall further unless financial markets get a clear signal as to where the country is headed.
Ever since he stepped down as prime minister in December, Mr Berlusconi has accused the President of plotting against him, first by refusing to call immediate elections and then by forming an interim administration of technocrats under the banker Lamberto Dini.
Nobody knows how long Mr Dini's administration can last, and even the emergency mini-budget unveiled last week - essential to keep the deficit under control - has come under energetic attack from Mr Berlusconi's allies. The Bank of Italy published further bad news this weekend with figures showing capital flight at a record high.
Mr Scalfaro said in Arezzo on Saturday: "There are those who say this government was created by an act of arrogance on my part, that in Italy democracy has been put on hold. This is deception, ignorance, presumption and bad faith." He attacked Mr Berlusconi, saying the right-wing businessman's resignation was a straightforward consequence of losing his parliamentary majority. He defended Mr Dini's administration, saying it had been created as a government of truce and could not simply be kicked around as a political football.
The President may, however, have only raised the temperature of debate. Mr Berlusconi called his words "tendentious and offensive", while the leader of the far-right National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, said Mr Scalfaro was behaving like a party leader, not a head of state.
A less hot-headed analysis came from the industrialist Carlo De Benedetti, who told Italian journalists in Brussels: "People abroad don't even ask me any more how things are going at home. Instead they say they have given up trying to understand our games of political Kama Sutra and are just waiting for the outcome."
n Mr Scalfaro arrived in Prague yesterday for a two-day visit. He will hold talks with President Vaclav Havel, the Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, and the parliamentary speaker, Milan Uhde. Tomorrow he goes to Brno, where he will visit Masaryk University, the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court.Reuse content