Tue, Aug 10, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Italian leader faces new challenge

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Rome

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi concentrates during a session of the Italian upper house of Parliament last month in Rome.

PHOTO: REUTERS

In the days leading up to the Italian Parliament's recess this month, a battle raged in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's governing coalition that posed the greatest threat yet to his regime.

The conflict suggested that Berlusconi's survival for three years in office, the very accomplishment he boasts of most, had dulled his luster and worn his one-time invulnerability thin.

Coalition partners, after relatively strong showings in June's local elections, have been aggressive about saying they are fed up with years of undelivered promises. Italians tired of economic slumps and Berlusconi's international gaffes have been saying they want to see a change.

But a deep division in the coalition between those who want to help their electoral bases in the country's wealthy north or poorer south has paralyzed Berlusconi's far-reaching campaign promises.

"There is a gap between his political force and electoral plan," said Angelo Panebianco, a political scientist at the University of Bologna, who added that a bickering coalition is nevertheless better than a collapsed one.

"Stability is an important value," said Roberto D'alimonte, a political scientist at the University of Florence. "And there is some virtue to the chance of voting on an incumbent prime minister. It increases accountability."

But critics refuse to award high grades for attendance alone. They cast Berlusconi as something of a disappointing student, too often distracted from his homework by poorly behaving friends and a host of extracurricular activities.

The prime minister seemed eager to get to the summer break. After skillfully quashing lingering gripes in his coalition and using risky confidence votes to push through his pension and budget reforms, he told reporters, "Now I can go on vacation in peace."

Many political analysts saw those successful efforts to rush legislation as a sign of desperation.

"Berlusconi was running out of time; he had to deliver," D'alimonte said. "Confidence votes are a shortcut."

The Italian opposition contends that Berlusconi, who is a media mogul and the country's richest man, wasted too much of his first years in power dwelling on his own personal interests rather than tackling difficult social reforms.

"We spent most of these three years dealing with tailor-made bills," said Paolo Gentiloni, a center-left member of Parliament. "The result is that his business is in really good shape, but the country is not."

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