Italy faces early poll as Dini finally resigns

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Italy was plunged into a hazardous and uncertain government crisis yesterday after the resignation of Lamberto Dini and his team of technocratic ministers. Mr Dini reluctantly handed in his resignation as Prime Minister on Thursday night, having failed to persuade a fractious parliament to let him stay while it mapped out a smooth path to take Italy through its six-month presidency of the European Union and prepare calmly for a general election.

Although he acknowledged that his government's limited mandate was over, Mr Dini warned fervently against a "crisis in the dark". After three days of fruitless debate in the Chamber of Deputies, though, a crisis in the dark is exactly what Italy now has to face.

On Monday, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro will begin exploratory talks with the speakers of the two houses of parliament and with leaders of all political parties to see if a new government with a coherent programme can somehow be cobbled together.

If the President fails, he will have no choice but to dissolve parliament and call elections - an option he and the centre-left have resisted because there is no guarantee that the political balance in a new parliament will be any clearer than in the present one.

This is exactly the kind of mess Italy had hoped to avoid at the beginning of its EU presidency. The crisis is almost certain still to be hanging over the country when it hosts the crucial Inter-Governmental Conference in March.

And if there are elections, Italy will be continuing an inglorious tradition already experienced by France and Germany during their recent presidencies.

Is there any prospect of salvaging the mess? If a new government can be formed, the most likely scenario is another Dini-led administration, but this time with "political" ministers drawn from all sides with a mandate to carry out institutional reforms. These would include a new electoral law more likely to produce a workable governing majority when the country next goes to the polls.

The chances of finding the cross-party agreement needed for such a government, though, seem dim indeed. Italy has never managed to pass a single amendment to its 1948 constitution despite several abortive attempts. Moreover, the aims of the country's two main political blocks are diametrically opposed: the centre-left simply wants to introduce a two-round voting system, while the centre-right wants to transform the country's whole style of government and invest far greater powers in the prime minister.

Italy's inability to stabilise its political system has become a spectacle veering between tragedy and high farce. Ever since the collapse of the old Christian Democrat-led order in 1992, there have been endless promises of sweeping change but precious little evidence of it. The media magnate Silvio Berlusconi claimed to have founded a "Second Republic" when he swept to power in March 1994, but his incongruous conservative coalition, supported by former neo-fascists on one side and northern separatists on the other, collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions after just seven months.

Mr Dini's government, voted in one year ago, was supposed to be a stopgap giving the country time to rethink its political system once again. Although he proved a competent technician, making the first significant cuts for years in Italy's runaway public deficit, the very longevity of his government attested to the country's inability to find a way out of the impasse.

The present crisis - sparked by the death of post-war government number 54 - has all the hallmarks of the bad old days, when political instability allowed terrorism, organised crime and corruption to get the better of the system. The longest crisis, in 1979, lasted five months. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Italy could be about to break its own record.