Italy's attempts to form a new government with a mandate to introduce wide-ranging constitutional reforms were on the verge of collapse yesterday, raising the prospect of a lame-duck administration seeing out the remainder of the country's presidency of the European Union, and general elections before the summer holidays.
Failing a last-minute reversal of fortune (always possible in this most tawdry of political climates), Antonio Maccanico is expected to resign his mandate as prime minister-designate today after 12 fraught days of negotiations with party leaders.
Mr Maccanico managed to put together the blueprint for a deal on creating a new political system, modelled on the French co-existence of a president with some executive powers and a prime minister in charge of the government. But in the last few days his efforts have been given the thumbs-down by Gianfranco Fini, leader of the formerly neo-fascist National Alliance, who has been the driving force behind more than a month of crisis.
It was Mr Fini who forced the resignation of the outgoing Prime Minister, Lamberto Dini, on the grounds that he had betrayed his non-political mandate and become identified with the centre-left. It was Mr Fini who insisted on putting constitutional reform on the agenda, with the aim of greatly increasing the authority of the President, and succeeded in bringing much of the political establishment along with him.
Now, however, Mr Fini appears to believe he has more to gain from early elections than from a largely technocratic government under Mr Maccanico which could easily drift away from his tough stance on constitutional reform.
Yesterday the leader of the main left-wing party, Massimo D'Alema, sought to make political capital from such intransigence, urging Mr Fini's coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi, not to let himself be "paralysed by the arrogance or the sly manoeuvres of one of his allies". Regardless of Mr Fini, however, the truth is that Mr Maccanico's efforts appeared doomed from the start, since no Italian parliament as divided as this one was ever likely to approve sweeping changes to the basic tenets governing the country's political life. Moreover, any government of his would have had to bridge the vast gulfs separating left and right on such issues as budgetary policy and fiscal management.
Mr Fini said as much over the weekend, remarking: "A government cannot be created this way ... without economic policy being discussed even for a minute." Yesterday similar sentiments were expressed by Romano Prodi, leader of the centre-left coalition made up of Mr D'Alema's PDS and a collection of progressive Christian Democrats. "This parliament, which hasn't managed to take any big decisions and lives in the shadow of government by decree, cannot be the one to take on the job of changing the structure and foundations of our country," he said.
If Mr Maccanico, a lifelong backroom wheeler-dealer with little public profile in Italy or abroad, does resign, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro will have little option but to think about a general election. Sources at the presidential palace said he would favour asking Mr Dini to revive his government long enough to see Italy through the European Union's crucial Inter-Governmental Conference in Turin at the end of next month and then head for elections in June.
Such an outcome would please almost nobody, since there is no guarantee the next parliament would be any more stable than the present one unless changes to the voting system, at the very least, can be introduced first. One result of an election campaign, though, would be to strengthen Mr Fini's position significantly within the conservative coalition still nominally headed by Mr Berlusconi. Mr Berlusconi is not keen to expose himself to the electorate now because he faces trials on corruption charges, and has slipped into the background during the present crisis.