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Italy's 56th post-war coalition collapses

ITALY'S PRIME Minister, Massimo D'Alema, who resigned at the weekend, could be back in the job today, as the country's leaders attempt to head off a prolonged political crisis.

Mr D'Alema stepped down on Saturday night after three tiny parties - known as the Clover group- withdrew their support for his centre-left coalition. His government was Italy's 56th since the end of the Second World War. Mr D'Alema, a former Communist, said he would only stay on as Prime Minister if he had solid support from the coalition.

President Carlo Ciampi began the ritual of political consultations yesterday morning and is expected to conclude them in record time. The fragile coalition has been under increasing strain in recent months and a reshuffle was expected in the new year.

That all changed last week when the Democratic Socialist party called for Mr D'Alema to be replaced as coalition leader and the other two Clover parties - the Republicans and the party headed by former president Francesco Cossiga - decided to pull out.

The Clover grouping, remnants of the parties who propped up 50 years of Christian Democrat governments, are unsure that they have picked the right side. Compared to the glossy media charm of the opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi, Mr D'Alema appears distant and arrogant and they fear that under his leadership the centre left will lose in elections due in 2001.

In a show of unity, seven coalition parties will go to the presidential palace tomorrow as a single delegation. They have signed a pact supporting Mr D'Alema but pledging to decide new procedures for the selection of the prime ministerial candidate. They hope this concession may persuade the Clover parties to remain on board.