Shouting could drown out Italian democracy in peril

As the politicians trade insults, the President returns to work today t o decide the fate of reform, reports Andrew Gumbel from Rome
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When the Italian President rises from his sickbed today and resumes negotiations to find a new government, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro will find himself at the centre of a political slanging match of rare intensity. The party leaders have put on their v erbal knuckle-dusters and are beating each other senseless.

While Mr Scalfaro has been nursing bronchitis and a high temperature, words like" thief", "liar", "dictator", "treason" and "coup" have been flying around in a fashion that at Westminster would have earned several suspensions from the House of Commons. Political parties are splitting and the reputation of parliament and constitution have come into question.

On one side are supporters of the outgoing Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who say their champion should be allowed to form another government or, at the very least, have his popularity tested immediately with new elections.

Facing them are the centre and left-wing parties that believe not only that Mr Berlusconi should stand aside, but that the electoral system and the rules on media ownership should be changed before fresh polls. They want President Scalfaro to appoint an interim administration to curb Mr Berlusconi's television empire and so ensure he cannot give himself an unfair advantage in any campaign.

Mr Berlusconi said last week that any such "presidential" administration would be anti-constitutional and a betrayal of the election that brought him to power last March. His main coalition partner, Gianfranco Fini, leader of the formerly Fascist National Alliance, has gone further, accusing the centre and the left of trying to stage a palace coup. "I meant what I said when I used the word `coup'," Mr Fini said yesterday. "It would be a mockery, a rape of the election results."

Those parties of the centre and left not themselves riven by splits have responded with a mixture of outrage and vigorous counterattack. They described a television interview by Mr Berlusconi last week as a cleverly presented pack of lies and accused himof clinging on to power to save his troubled business empire.

"Berlusconi looks like a street salesman trying to offload products way past their sell-by date," said Marco Formentini, mayor of Milan and a member of the Northern League, the volatile party that toppled Mr Berlusconi by walking out of the government last month.

Even given Italy's excitable standards, this war of words is truly worrisome. When only recently reformed neo-Fascists talk about coups, uncomfortable memories are revived of the thuggery and breakdown of parliamentary democracy at the beginning of the Mussolini era.

"We are dancing on the edge of a volcano," the editor of the Rome daily La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, wrote yesterday. "People might say that for the moment we are dealing only with words. But these words have already set a process in motion that could bring the country very rapidly to the point of no return, to physical confrontation on the streets."

The stakes may indeed be that high. At issue is the very soul of Italy as it struggles to throw off the corruption and political stagnation of the past. Nobody symbolises the dynamics of that struggle more than Mr Berlusconi and Mr Scalfaro; indeed, behind the tirades of the past few days lies a long history of animosity and mistrust between the two men. For Mr Berlusconi, the President is still ensconced in the ways of the old "First Republic" with its clientism and concentration of power in politicalparties rather than the government. Mr Scalfaro is, according to Mr Berlusconi's aides, "the old Christian Democrat party in pill form", a wily operator who is trying to crush Mr Berlusconi like so many of the Christian Democrats' rivals in the past.

Mr Scalfaro's aides consider Mr Berlusconi something of a demagogue, a man prepared to hold the system to ransom if he can. He has been described at the presidential palace as irresponsible, "a nasty man by nature who is convinced he is loved by everyone".

The personal distaste reflects the two men's contrasting visions of a Second Republic. Mr Berlusconi envisages a Thatcherite free-market revolution in which the whole apparatus of the state is dismantled, leaving a drastically scaled down but forceful political leadership akin to the board of a large industrial company.

He believes the Prime Minister, not the President, should decide how to form governments and when to hold elections, arguing that only a strong, single chief executive can sweep away the endless politicking of the past. Mr Scalfaro's instincts are indeedembedded in the old Christian Democrat principle of consensus politics, of consultation and compromise. Time and again since last March he has sought to curb Mr Berlusconi's excesses, whether in vetoing ministerial appointments that posed a conflict of interest or in pushing Mr Berlusconi to relinquish control of his commercial empire.

But it is Mr Scalfaro, with all his old-school baggage, who now appears the more progressive. Much as Mr Berlusconi might deny it, the country badly needs clear legislation to break up business cartels and provide a level political playing-field in the media.

It also needs a period of reflection on what kind of electoral system it wants.

Mr Scalfaro's "presidential" administration stands a chance of achieving all this. Mr Berlusconi, meanwhile, has fallen into many of the traps of the old system, becoming bogged down in politicking rather than policy-making. His attitude of "either with me or against me" has proved antagonistic to parliamentary practice and raised fears of a hidden dictatorial agenda.

As the tide pulls away from Mr Berlusconi - and it appears at this stage that he will not immediately be reappointed prime minister - his outbursts and cries of treason are strangely reminiscent of a maxim coined by that grandee of the old system, GiulioAndreotti: "Power wears out those who do not have it." The more the recriminations and exchanges of political swearwords persist, the wearier Mr Berlusconi looks.