Prodi staggers from the labyrinth to rescue Albania

Andrew Gumbel on the fall-out from Italian political power games

First the good news. Italy will, as planned, lead the multinational peace-keeping force going into Albania next week. What's more, the Italian government looks like it might actually win today's confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies and live to fight another day. Or another week. Long enough, anyway, to see the soldiers off and recover a portion of its wounded pride.

The bad news is that a major international foreign policy initiative almost came to grief because of the chronic political instability of its most active advocate. As a result, Italy has abjectly failed in its attempt to be taken seriously by the rest of the international community and finds itself backsliding dangerously towards the bad political habits of its past.

For a while, with Albania tumbling ever further into anarchy and no other Western power daring to stick its neck out, Italy looked like the right country in the right place at the right time to clear up the latest mess in the Balkans. The world forgot, however, that when it comes to anarchy - at least of the political variety - then Italy takes some beating, what with 55 post-war governments to its name and no clear sign that the Byzantine coalition-broking and endless power games of the past are even close to being eliminated.

It's worth examining the hoops that the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, had to jump through on Albania to understand just how appalling Italian political life still is. Although the intervention force enjoyed the support of the overwhelming majority of political parties, it was opposed by the keyRifondazione Comunista, which holds the balance of power in the Chamber of Deputies.

As it emerged that Rifondazione's "no" on Albania was definitive, the opposition started making waves of their own by introducing a rival motion on the intervention force. If you want the force to be approved, they told Mr Prodi, you'll have to vote for our motion, not your own. And by the way, once you've done that, we think you ought to resign.

By Tuesday evening it looked as though both Mr Prodi and the Albanian enterprise were sunk. What saved them was a complex piece of "variable geometry", as the Eurocrats would call it. Thanks to a last-minute deal with the opposition, Mr Prodi managed to push a joint motion on the intervention force through parliament on Wednesday night with only Rifondazione and a couple of other parties voting against.

Then, acknowledging the loss of his government majority, he went to the President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, to tender his resignation. President Scalfaro promptly sent him back to parliament for a confidence vote - one that Rifondazione had indicated it would support, thus saving Mr Prodi's bacon.

The frustrating thing about the whole rotten spectacle is that issues of substance, such as Albania's future, have been completely submerged by the petty dictates of power politics. Rifondazione Comunista issued long lists of reasons why they opposed the intervention force, but the deeper truth is they saw an opportunity to hold the government to ransom - not for the first time - and remind everyone just how indispensable they are.

While everyone else was staggering around parliament looking shell-shocked on Wednesday night, Rifondazione's irrepressible leader, Fausto Bertinotti, was having the time of his life discussing the finer points of his choice of suit and tie.

He is a man with a reputation for saying "no" to just about anything, but he has never knowingly turned his nose up to well-cut clothes.

The Albanian crisis is the most visible sign so far of the government's weakness, but far from the only one. Everything from privatisation policy to broadcasting reform has been slowed down or halted by Rifondazione's intransigence. Yesterday, Italy's industrialists took to the streets for the first time since 1962 to protest against the country's latest Maastricht- inspired austerity budget package. Their gripe: the government's decision - or rather Rifondazione's - to siphon money off company savings funds rather than make any cuts in the welfare state.

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