Italian parties name price to join caretaker government

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The Independent Online

Italy's fractious political parties will all be demanding a piece of the governmental pie this week as they prepare for a parliamentary debate to end weeks of stalemate.

The country effectively entered a kind of limbo, neither entirely with a government nor entirely without one, when the Prime Minister, Lamberto Dini, offered to resign on Saturday but was told to go back to work by President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro.

It now looks increasingly likely that Mr Dini - boosted by the president's decision - will stay on as a non-political caretaker at least until the end of Italy's six-month term as president of the European Union in June. What still needs to be decided, however, is who will govern with him and what their mandate will be.

With all parties imposing various conditions as their price for supporting Mr Dini in parliament, there has been much talk of creating a "governissimo", a kind of national unity government with elements representing the whole political spectrum. This, however, would risk turning into the sort of messy clientelistic compromise that characterised the Christian Democrat- led order during the Cold War.

Both left and right are deeply divided about the idea, although most party leaders acknowledge the need to introduce a "political" element to the government. So far, Mr Dini's 11-month-old administration has been made up of non-elected lawyers, professors, economists and other technocrats.

One major sea-change has been the attitude of Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate and shortlived former prime minister, who has suddenly dropped his insistent calls for immediate elections in favour of a "governissimo" with a two-year mandate. Newspapers this weekend were rife with speculation about his motives, suggesting that they were influenced more by personal than by national interests. Mr Berlusconi is due to go on trial for tax bribery on 17 January, and is believed to be involved in negotiations for an amnesty in the country's long-running corruption scandals.

Regardless of Mr Berlusconi, the prospect of elections have receded. Most commentators think they cannot now happen until the autumn - not least because September will mark the two-and-a-half year point at which first-time deputies qualify for state pensions.

Many party leaders are looking to President Scalfaro for a lead on an election date. He was expected to give some indication last night in his annual New Year's Eve address to the nation.