Vote gives Prodi a crumb of comfort

Provisional results from this weekend's local elections confirmed the deep structural paralysis at the heart of Italian politics yesterday, with neither of the two main coalition blocs making significant gains over the other and small fringe parties holding enormous sway over the final outcome.

The good news for Romano Prodi's centre-left government was that it did not go down to crashing defeat, as some had predicted, after a year of weak leadership and enormous sacrifices demanded of the people in an attempt to qualify on time for for European monetary union.

But the centre-right opposition, led by the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the reformed neo-Fascist leader Gianfranco Fini, could claim only the most tenuous of leads, since most of the biggest prizes on offer will have to be decided in a run-off in two weeks' time.

In the big economic centres of the north, the opposition was ahead in Milan and Turin but trailing in Trieste.

The biggest gains, meanwhile, were registered by the far-left protest party Rifondazione Comunista, the group Mr Prodi has been forced to accommodate to make up a majority in the lower house of parliament but whose ideological posturings have made life hell for him.

Already yesterday the leader of Rifondazione, Fausto Bertinotti was warning that the forthcoming round of negotiations on welfare reform, which are deemed essential if Italy is to qualify for the single European currency, would only win his support if they did not entail any public spending cuts.

That stance, if it is maintained, will sabotage any serious attempts at reform and will almost certainly bring down Mr Prodi's government.

The evident paralysis is good news in one sense, since an extraordinary cross-party commission is currently drawing up changes to the constitution in an attempt to make Italy more governable. The election results might just spur them into making intelligent electoral reforms.

The big loser this weekend was another fringe party, the Northern League, whose calls for secession from the rest of Italy sealed its defeat in Milan, where it had occupied the mayor's office. The party was defeated also in a host of other northern cities and provinces.

The League's mercurial leader, Umberto Bossi, seemed unperturbed by his party's poor showing. Indeed, he positively crowed about the defeat of mayor Marco Formentini in Milan, since Mr Formentini is an outspoken opponent of secession.

Asked whom the League would support in the second round, he said the party would not even bother to campaign. "We'll send everybody off to the mountains," he said.

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