Mon, Oct 29, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Italy's two top ruling parties merge

AFP , MILAN, ITALY

Italy saw the birth on Saturday of the Democratic Party, a merger of the ruling center-left's two largest formations, even as the government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi appeared on the brink of collapse.

"Our motor is the unity of reformist forces," Prodi told some 2,800 delegates to the party's constituent assembly in Milan's exhibition hall, decked out in futuristic green and white decor.

The meeting enthrones Rome's popular Mayor Walter Veltroni as party leader and heir apparent to the embattled Prodi.

The delegates, elected in primaries earlier this month, cheered as the two hugged on the podium with a popular rap song Mi Fido di Te (I trust in you) playing over the loudspeakers.

Veltroni, 52, becomes national secretary, while the 68-year-old Prodi will be president of the Democratic Party (DP).

The mayor pointed to the high turnout of some 3.5 million voters in the primaries, saying that Italy had become a "political laboratory" for all of Europe.

"The vote of Oct. 14 was a vote for change and not for politics as usual," he said.

Veltroni intends to stay on as mayor, while Prodi has repeatedly said he would step down at the end of his term in 2011 -- if he lasts that long.

The prime minister will play more of a supporting role than one of "active management," according to the daily Unita.

The DP merges the former communist Democrats of the Left and the centrist Catholic Daisy party with the hope that the result will be greater than the sum of its parts.

Veltroni said the party's priorities would include helping the most vulnerable, assuring the right to work, addressing the problems of the south, which is chronically poorer than the north, and fighting the mafia.

In the Unita interview published on Saturday, Prodi said the party had set a minimum goal of winning the support of one-third of the electorate.

The first electoral test will come in 2009 with the elections to the European Parliament, he added.

Prodi, who took power 17 months ago after a razor-thin election victory, told the delegates on Saturday that his government's lack of popularity "is the price to pay for its determination to carry out reforms."

Veltroni feels that the Cabinet should be pared down from its current 103 members, while Prodi would be hard pressed to jettison anyone given the need to maintain equilibrium among the nine parties making up his fragile coalition.

The center-left's narrow win in last year's elections depended on the far left, whose deep independent streak briefly brought down the Prodi government in February.

"I hope the DP will be a force for changing the local political class, so that it is chosen for its quality and its ideas, not for belonging to one group or another," a delegate from southern Naples, Antonella Ciaramella, said.

Another delegate, 30-year-old Francesca Poggiato from Prodi's home region, northern Emilia Romagna, said the DP had "a new model, of a party formed by and of the people."

"It absolutely should support and give added value to the government," she said.

In the coming weeks parliament will continue a bruising debate on the 2008 budget in what may become a decisive battle for Prodi, whose coalition ranges from far-left communists and Greens to centrist Catholics.

The political and social climate has deteriorated, with radical leftists taking to the streets to demand promised social reforms. Corruption scandals meanwhile have implicated government members including Justice Minister Clamente Mastella.

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