Italy's Olive Tree fails to bear fruit

Roman theatre: Fractious coalition reluctant to tackle problems besetting health service and Mafia-ridden south
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Six months ago, the Italian centre-left won its first general election since the war with promises of radical change in the way the country was governed, and an end to the chronic instability, corruption and creeping clientelism of the past. The victorious Olive Tree coalition is still in power - an achievement in itself, perhaps, in this most tawdry of political climates - but there are precious few signs of the much-promised revolution.

All the old symptoms are very much in evidence: the policy principles compromised by backroom dealing, the primacy of scheming party leaders over government ministers, the allegations of nepotism in public appointments, and, perhaps most seriously, the near-paralysis in parliament making every piece of legislation a struggle of titanic proportions.

It is not that the government is particularly unpopular. If anything, it is still riding on the wave of cautious optimism that brought about its election in the first place. But there is no sense of a watershed as there was in Britain in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher broke the post- war consensus on the welfare state, or again in France in 1981 when Francois Mitterrand marched the left into power for the first time in 23 years.

Partly this has been for reasons beyond the control of Prime Minister Romano Prodi and his partners in government. Not only have they inherited a political system that leaves much to be desired and cannot easily be changed, but they have also been faced with an agenda that leaves little room for manoeuvre. Cleaning up public finances in preparation for European monetary union has been their overriding preoccupation, leaving little time or resources to deal with chronic problems in the health service, in the postal system, in the under-developed and Mafia-ridden south, and so on.

Partly, too, the government has been a prisoner of its own coalition politics and of its fragile majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Whenever a new initiative is announced, Mr Prodi has to deal not only with the objections of the opposition, but very often with discontent within his own ranks too. The Olive Tree stretches from the collectivist far left of Rifondazione Comunista, which is not part of the government but contributes vital votes in parliament, to the free-market, pro-business faction of the Foreign Minister and former premier, Lamberto Dini. The two wings make little secret of detesting each other and frequently work to trip each other up, often recruiting other factions within the coalition to do so.

Such tensions have made parliament a volatile place. In many of the committees where the smallprint of legislation is worked out, the government has a majority of just one, making it easy for the opposition to take advantage of absentees to shoot down draft laws paragraph by paragraph. The mood in the chamber is little better, as was illustrated 10 days ago when 28 of Mr Dini's deputies chose to stay away, and the government went down to a humiliating defeat on a law providing emergency shelter for the homeless.

As a result, the government has had to resort to the tactic employed by many of its predecessors - issuing 60-day decrees on vital issues and, if necessary, renewing them when they lapse. But even this solution has come under threat. The constitutional court ruled this month that it was illegal to renew decrees without substantially altering their content, a decision that effectively took an axe to 53 planks of government policy that have yet to make their tortuous way through the parliamentary wringer. Mr Prodi's team is still trying to work out a solution to this, the latest of their many headaches.

Some of the blame for the slow progress of the past six months must also rest on the government's shoulders. Time and again it has proved over- cautious or behaved in ways reminiscent of the old system, especially with the media. First it replaced most of the hierarchy at the RAI, the state broadcasting system, with a line-up that looked suspiciously motivated by political allegiance rather than professional competence. As a result there has been a near-revolt both within the RAI and the governing coalition.

Furthermore, the government has gone against its own campaign pledge to rewrite the rules on media ownership, refusing to touch the private television empire belonging to the opposition leader, Silvio Berlusconi, even though a constitutional court ruling ordered him to sell at least one of his three stations by last August. The issue is up for renegotiation in January but there are few signs that this fragile government is prepared to risk Mr Berlusconi's fury.

For the moment, the government is clinging on partly because the parties making up the ruling coalition know there is no alternative, and partly because Mr Berlusconi's opposition has proved toothless. But politicians are in no doubt that any serious upset, in particular over Italy's qualification for European monetary union, would mean instant death for Mr Prodi's administration. Radical change, if it comes, will be slow and painful. The spectre of political instability, though tempered for the moment, still looms.