Technocrat Dini becomes toast of Italy Left and right woo Dini in fight for centre Dini becomes hot property in fight for centre

ANDREW GUMBEL

Rome

Italy's Prime Minister, Lamberto Dini, must be wondering what on earth has happened to him. A few weeks ago he was the premier everyone loved to hate, a mere technocrat holding power only as long as it took the politicians to sort out their squabbles and fix new elections. Now he has been thrust into the role of political superstar, and everyone is anxious to woo him on to their side.

As Mr Dini returns to work today to work on next year's budget, he finds himself at the centre of a buzz of speculation about his future. Has he been flirting with the centre-left? Or has he been engaging in secret meetings with Silvio Berlusconi about taking up the standard for the centre- right?

The rumours began swirling last week, when one of the most influential figures on the new reformist left, Walter Veltroni, suggested Mr Dini might join the bandwagon already formed by himself and the centrist economist Romano Prodi. "He could be our deputy prime ministerial candidate," he said.

The Berlusconi camp immediately responded with the remarkable suggestion that Mr Berlusconi was willing to give up ambitions of returning to the prime minister's office and let Mr Dini run in his place.

Speculation ran to fever pitch when Mr Dini jumped on a plane to Olbia, Sardinia, raising the possibility of a meeting with Mr Berlusconi at his nearby villa, and ran riot when a second trip to Olbia, scheduled for the middle of last week, was cancelled at the last moment.

What is going on? One of Mr Berlusconi's allies, Alessandro Meluzzi, put it succinctly: "The Italian electorate is overwhelmingly centrist, and whoever wins most votes in the political centre will win the next elections. Both camps have understood this, and Dini could well be the V-2 missile that can make the crucial difference."

What Mr Dini has proved during his seven-month premiership is that political showmanship is no substitute for simply getting on with the job. With manufacturing booming, the public debt slowly coming under control and the Italian lira performing strongly against the German mark, the supposedly uncharismatic careerbanker has become more popular than any of the professional politicians.

Whether he will take up any of the tempting offers being made to him is another matter. By temperament a conservative, it doesn't make much sense for him to make common cause with the centre-left. But allying himself with Mr Berlusconi is also unattractive, since the centre-right has tried to sabotage his government right from the day it was sworn in.

For the moment he is likely to remain above the political fray, but once the 1996 budget is wrapped up he will face a tough decision.

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