Squabbles mar new Italian government

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The Independent Online

Italy swore in a 58th post-war government with new Premier Guiliano Amato but the same chronically bickering center-left parties, united chiefly only in the desire to keep Silvio Berlusconi's surging conservatives from power.

Ominously for the future of his eight-party coalition, Amato, a 61-year-old veteran known as "Dr. Subtle" for his political finesse, proved unable to quell squabbling over Cabinet posts even long enough for the oath-taking.

The ceremony played out at the presidential palace before Amato's 23 Cabinet appointees - and one empty brocade chair, with Edo Ronchi of the Greens rejecting the post of European Union minister in pique at not being offered another stint as enviroment minister instead.

The flap meant the new government had its first crisis before it even had its mandate. Absent compromise, it raised the possibility that the Greens would pull out of the brand-new government although presumably still support it in Parliament.

"Good luck," ex-Premier Massimo D'Alema, brought down by much the same kind of squabbling, told Amato, shaking his successor's hand for the cameras.

Amato served as D'Alema's treasury minister and served as premier for 10 months in 1992-93, when Italy's political system was rocked by corruption scandals.

Weakened by infighting since it came to power in 1996, the center-left under D'At the bit for what would be his second turn as premier.

The center-left's chief effort now is to make Berlusconi wait for that turn at least until parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2001.

It jettisoned D'Alema after the April 16 showing. President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi ignored Berlusconi's demand for immediate elections and offered Amato the chance to form another center-left government instead.

"It's a formation that speaks for itself, put in place with the sole purpose of keeping the left in power," Berlusconi said after Amato announced his Cabinet picks Tuesday night.

Except for the name change at the top, the Cabinet list is stuffed with names familiar from previous center-left governments - including that of Lamberto Dini, hanging on to his job as foreign minister under three premiers now.

"They've only shuffled the seats," complained one center-left senator, Antonio Di Pietro, faulting Amato for Cabinet picks that seemed to have more to do with political expediency than expertise.

Di Pietro, formerly a crusading anti-corruption prosecutor, is pointedly withholding support from Amato because of the new premier's links to disgraced former Premier Bettino Craxi.

Amato was right-hand man to Craxi, who died last year in Tunisia, where he fled to escape corruption charges.

Amato was never among the ones accused of taking kickbacks.

Amato's new government now must pass a vote of confidence in Parliament. That takes a margin of 50 percent-plus-one vote in both houses.

The vote was expected to pass by a wide margin in the Senate but be much closer in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies. Wednesday, Italian media were estimating Amato would be able to command 318 to 320 seats - just enough, if no supporters defected.

Pier Paolo Cento, a Greens party deputy, said in a radio interview that the vote "could be very close. Anything can happen."

The lower house is to hear Amato outline his plans for his administration on Thursday and vote on the new government the following day. The Senate vote is expected next week.

Amato postponed his first Cabinet meeting until Thursday, saying new Health Minister Umberto Veronesi, Italy's leading cancer doctor, had prior appointments with his patients that he could not break.

Amato's coalition ranges from former Communists to Communist hard-liners to liberal former Christian Democrats. A former Socialist, he is serving now as an independent.