Wily Ciampi sets ball rolling for polls

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The Independent Online
ITALY'S Prime Minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, neatly sidestepping a last-ditch attempt by the political old guard to stop him, yesterday handed in his government's resignation to President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and set in motion the machinery for fresh elections.

The President then summoned the parliamentary speakers for a meeting today at which they are expected to set the date of the elections, which will end Italy's corrupt and scandal-wrecked First Republic and initiate its Second. Their choice is expected to be a Sunday in late March or early April.

President Scalfaro neither accepted nor rejected Mr

Ciampi's resignation: he is understood to want him and his cabinet to carry on with full powers until the elections rather than hold the fort in a caretaker capacity.

Mr Ciampi held a quick cabinet meeting then headed for the presidential palace as soon as a motion of no-confidence in his government was withdrawn for lack of support in the Chamber of Deputies, ending a day and a half's debate. Perversely, the motion had been part of an abortive scheme backed by the old guard to return him to power at the head of a new government and postpone the dreaded elections until June.

To their fury, he did not wait for their final attempt - a motion of confidence, which would have made it impossible for him to resign.

Old-guard MPs were talking last night of sending a deputation to the President to insist that there still was a majority in Parliament. But the President is believed to be as determined as Mr Ciampi that Italians must now go to the polls.

The Prime Minister dismissed objections, saying the issue was 'not about government' - making it politely clear that he, too, saw the manoeuvrings as an attempt to play for time, prolonging privileges, giving the centre-right, in particular, more time to regroup and - for some culprits - postponing the day of their likely arrest.

In his eight months in power Mr Ciampi, who was formerly governor of the Bank of Italy, has given Italy probably the best government it has had for decades. Summoned and firmly supported by his friend President Scalfaro, he was backed by the former ruling parties but also by the benevolent abstention of the larger opposition parties, particularly the Northern League and former Communists. He saw it always as a non-political government of transition. His priorities were to restore international confidence in Italy and its economy during an unstable and potentially damaging period, to tackle its huge deficit and to see that electoral reform, demanded by a national referendum, was passed in Parliament.

This, the Prime Minister announced, has been achieved. The new first-past-the-post electoral system, approved in parliament on 18 December, was published in the official gazette earlier this week, removing the last technical obstacle to elections.

At the same time he was able to claim that he had contained the deficit, reduced inflation, provided for lower taxes in future, passed the vital 1994 budget, begun reform of the elephantine state bureaucracy and successfully started a programme for the privatisation of Italy's many state-owned industries. The economic mess left by the old political parties had been brought under control. The route to recovery, he announced, had been set.

Berlusconi's empire, page 19