Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Italian coalition parties in talks to save Cabinet


Italian Prime Minister Silvio Ber-lusconi's crucial talks with rebellious coalition partners, which could result in anything from a Cabinet reshuffle to a coalition collapse if no compromise is found, resume yesterday.

Coalition leaders suspended a first, four-hour session of negotiations shortly after midnight and said they would meet again later in the day.

Berlusconi called for face-to-face discussions with all his allies after a junior coalition partner threatened to quit unless major changes were made to the government's program.

"We are at the talks to resolve problems. But if what is proposed turns out to be the opposite of the coalition's programme there, it's clear things can't go well," Roberto Calderoli of the right-leaning Northern League said yesterday.

Senate vice-president Calderoli, interviewed in the daily La Repubblica, appeared to throw down the gauntlet of early elections to any coalition trouble-makers

"Seeing as the program was voted for by the people, it will go back to the people to be voted on. We are holding to what was agreed and voted on. But if someone wants to change their mind," he was quoted as saying.

Around 40 party members are sitting around three tables to discuss politics, economics and institutional reform in what may be several days of talks to resolve a power struggle that has paralyzed Berlusconi's administration.

"There's no longer room for ambiguity, hypocrisy, games and behind-the-scene scheming. It's decision time," Labour Minister Roberto Maroni of the Northern League told reporters ahead of Sunday's opening round of talks.

Berlusconi's government has survived three years in office, making it the longest surviving administration since World War II, but the omnipresent tensions among allies have reached a new high. The next general elections are due in 2006.

It was the Northern League that pulled the plug on Berlus-coni's first government back in 1994 when it pulled out of a similar coalition in a row over pension reforms.

The latest crisis to hit Berlusconi's rule was prompted by last month's European and local elections in which his conservative Forza Italia party lost ground to its three junior partners.

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