Saturday, February 24, 2007

Italian politics - 62nd time lucky?

Romano Prodi struggles to form another government

THE parliamentary tornado that ripped through Romano Prodi’s centre-left government on Wednesday February 21st, prompting its leader to resign, showed how dangerous it can be for a European government to be seen to be backing the Bush administration. The same day that Tony Blair, George Bush’s closest ally, announced the departure of some British troops from Iraq, Italy’s prime minister was humiliated in a crucial parliamentary vote, centring on Italy’s involvement in Afghanistan.

As President Giorgio Napolitano began consulting party representatives on a possible replacement for the prime minister, the cause of Mr Prodi’s troubles looked more significant than their immediate result. Rather than forcing Italy’s long-suffering voters back to the polls (this was the 61st government since 1945) the president was expected to try for a cabinet headed by someone more widely acceptable in parliament, or even for a remodelled Prodi administration. The outgoing coalition’s core parties quickly said they would support Mr Prodi again.

Mr Prodi actually won the vote in Italy’s Senate by 158 votes to 136 with 24 abstentions. But abstentions count as votes against, so the formal result was a two-vote defeat. It was not, technically, a confidence vote, so Mr Prodi did not need to step down. But his foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema, had just said that defeat would mean it was time for “everyone to go home”. Exultant representatives of the centre-right, which is led by the media proprietor and former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, pounced on his undertaking. Holding aloft a copy of a newspaper headlining the pledge, Mr Berlusconi’s chief whip in the upper house cried: “There is no Prodi government any more. The Prodi government has fallen in this chamber.” When news reached the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, scuffles broke out between government and opposition. Over a hundred people gathered outside Mr Prodi’s office chanting “Resign, resign”.

Behind the defeat lay profound divisions over foreign policy within Mr Prodi’s government. In recent weeks two largely separate issues have become perilously entwined. One is Italy’s contribution to Afghanistan’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Since Mr Prodi pulled Italian forces out of Iraq last year, the left-most members of his sprawling, nine-party coalition, which includes Greens, Christian centrists, ex-communists and radical leftists, have increasingly focused their attention on ISAF. Though the mission has a United Nations mandate, it is NATO-run, jarring the Italian left’s strong pacifist and anti-American sensibilities. Three ministers walked out of the cabinet rather than sign off extra funding for the Afghan force, which has yet to be endorsed by parliament.

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