Right wing prolongs Italy's political agony

After nearly a month of seemingly intractable governmental crisis, Italy's political parties today begin their third, and what looks like their last, round of consultations with President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who has promised that by Thursday the crisis will be resolved. The aim of the talks is to try to ward off an immediate dissolution of parliament with a cross- party programme for electoral and constitutional reform.

The country has been at a standstill since Lamberto Dini, the outgoing prime minister, first handed in his resignation last month at the end of his already temporary mandate. With no clear majority of any kind in parliament, and little prospect of improvement if elections were to be held under the present voting system, Italy has, in effect, turned into a government-free zone.

Political leaders, conscious of the embarrassment they are causing as Italy begins its six-month term as president of the European Union, have been trying to address several problems at once: the need for a new government, the need for a new electoral system, and the need for deep constitutional reform.

It always seemed unlikely that a parliament made up of 26 squabbling parties would ever agree to a coherent programme to change the political face of Italy under such high-pressure conditions. And yet there has been more to this crisis than the chronic instability of the Italian system. One man has proved the stumbling-block to a solution at every turn - the leader of the reformed neo-fascist National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini.

When the crisis began, the rest of the political establishment was happy to give Mr Dini a second mandate, albeit with a stronger ministerial line- up to replace his stop-gap team of technocrats, but Mr Fini said no. The next proposal was for a government of broad consensus to take Italy at least through its EU presidency, but again Mr Fini vetoed the plan, saying that only sweeping constitutional change would be an acceptable alternative to early elections.

A panel of cross-party constitutional experts set to work and came up with a new two-round electoral system to reduce the number of parties in parliament, a stronger mandate for the prime minister to provide the country with a clear direction, and a series of disincentives to stop parliament bringing down government after government, as in the past.

But again Mr Fini rejected the majority view, saying he would stop at nothing short of what he calls presidenzialismo - conferring sweeping powers on one directly elected political leader who would be only loosely accountable to parliament.

In some ways the young, ambitious Mr Fini has played his cards smartly, using his pivotal role within the conservative coalition headed by Silvio Berlusconi to swing the political agenda his way. Partly exploiting the anti-corruption investigations in Mr Berlusconi's business empire, he has to a large extent stepped out of the shadow of his mentor and staked a claim to the leadership of the Italian right.

Opinion polls show him gaining in popularity, suggesting that of his political peers he would have most to gain from a snap general election.

But the nature of Mr Fini's proposals has produced shivers of alarm, since his concept of presidenzialismo seems dangerously close to the authoritarianism of Mussolini, once described by Mr Fini as Italy's greatest statesman this century.

Mr Fini's closest constitutional adviser, Domenico Fisichella, quit the National Alliance three days ago, saying the direct election of a prime minister free of parliamentary constraint would be "essentially illiberal". The CCD, a small Christian Democrat party allied to Mr Berlusconi and Mr Fini, has threatened to withdraw its support unless the measure is dropped from the agenda.

Even Mr Berlusconi was yesterday distancing himself and trying to reassert his own authority within conservative ranks. "We have to be careful that the premier does not turn into a despot," he said.

It was Mr Berlusconi who brought Mr Fini, and his then overtly neo-fascist movement, in from the political cold by joining forces with him for the March 1994 general elections. Mr Fini enthusiastically accepted the offer and in return officially ditched his party's neo-fascist ideology.

It now appears, however, that Mr Berlusconi might have created a dangerous rival, slowly eluding his control - "Gianfrankenstein", as one cartoonist called Mr Fini.