Berlusconi's Allies Haggle Over Italy's Government

After last week's election victory, partners in a right-wing coalition disagree over whether Italy should embrace a new federalist system

MEDIA tycoon Silvio Berlusconi's efforts to create a conservative Italian government are beginning to look like the labors of Sisyphus.

The divisions within his victorious right-wing coalition are coming into ever sharper relief a week after parliamentary elections, with Sen. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, rejecting Mr. Berlusconi as a potential prime minister and Gianfranco Fini, leader of the neo-Fascist National Alliance, spurning Mr. Bossi's call for a constituent Parliament that would draft a federalist constitution.

Berlusconi, as the leader of the party that got the most votes, seems the natural candidate to be the next prime minister, but Bossi insists that the next premier must come from the Northern League.

``We can't give in on this point,'' Bossi said Saturday. ``I repeat: The prime minister cannot be Berlusconi.''

Bossi, who spoke during a self-imposed Easter vacation from negotiations, said he would begin talks with the country's other political parties on Wednesday to determine who might be disposed to support his federalist proposal.

Berlusconi had attempted to appease Bossi on Friday by proposing a national referendum on federalism, following a meeting with League leaders.

United States of Italy?

Federalism is a touchy issue in Italian politics. Mr. Fini, a parliamentary deputy, is a staunch foe of Bossi's federalist plan, which he says threatens Italy's very existence. The National Alliance considers the unity of Italy, achieved in 1870, to be fundamental and nonnegotiable.

Fini expressed hopes Saturday that Bossi would come around.

``When he's ready to have a calm discussion, at that point we can ascertain if it's possible to create a government in harmony with the Italians' electoral choices,'' Fini said. ``Perhaps then Bossi will understand that he didn't win the elections alone, that Italy is not only the North, and that therefore the government program will have to be agreed on with a sense of balance, without childish behavior, without prima donnas, without preconceived positions.''

Bossi's proposal of three republics (North, Center, and South) within a united Italy is not feasible, Fini says, because the number of republics is too few for true federalism; the practical result of Bossi's plan would be the secession of the North from the rest of Italy. On the other hand, Fini says that he agrees to giving greater economic powers to the 20 regions that make up Italy.

The League was born in the 1980s as a protest movement against the prevailing politics and often reflected resentment among the prosperous northerners over massive state funding of the underdeveloped south. Bossi denies, however, that he wants to break up Italy.

Fini himself became a point of international controversy last week, after telling Turin's La Stampa newspaper that he still regards Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as the century's greatest statesman, a statement that seemed at odds with recent efforts to project a moderate image.

Fascism is history

During his failed bid to win the mayoral elections in Rome last November, Fini in carefully nuanced words said that Fascism was now a period that belonged to history and that he was a ``post-Fascist.'' He disassociated himself from the neo-Nazi skinhead movement and condemned its violence.

Fini's candidacy was supported by Berlusconi.

Berlusconi created his own political party this year, called Forza Italia, and then made an electoral coalition with the Northern League in the north and one with the National Alliance in the south. He was elected to the country's Chamber of Deputies last weekend.

Bossi says Berlusconi would not be a suitable prime minister because of his business interests, which include three national TV networks, magazines, book publishers, media production companies, advertising agencies, a supermarket chain, real estate companies, financial companies, and sports teams. Berlusconi resigned from administrative responsibilities in his Fininvest holding company when he entered politics, but he remains its owner and has not placed his interests in a blind trust.

The possibility that Berlusconi the prime minister might make decisions that would help Berlusconi the businessman troubles not only Bossi but also the defeated left-wing political parties.

Meanwhile, there remains the problem of forming a government. One politician, Marco Pannella, already has said that if Berlusconi does not succeed soon in this task, it would be better to return to the polls than to continue bickering.

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