One Nation Indivisible Under Prodi? Italy's New Chief Tries to Avoid Split

The division between Italy's prosperous north and its underdeveloped south is destined to be one of the top items on the agenda of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's newly formed government.

After the swearing-in ceremonies on Saturday, Mr. Prodi's first act was to fly to Palermo, Sicily, with his justice and interior ministers to pledge a relentless fight against organized crime.

"This is an earnest and total commitment for Sicily and all of the south," he said.

The grip of crime bosses over southern Italy is seen as one of the principal causes of the region's backwardness. The Prodi government's pledge came on the eve of the anniversary of the 1992 assassination of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone.

As Prodi, an economist from Bologna, spoke in Palermo, he also faced pressure from his native north.

Discontent there over high taxes and poor public services has been exploited by the regional Northern League party, which has been pressing Prodi to introduce a federalist system of government in Italy.

Wishful thinking

Party leader Umberto Bossi, taking advantage of his strong 10 percent national showing in the April 21 parliamentary elections, has formed a Parliament of Mantova and a shadow government. It has no powers recognized by the national government.

Mr. Bossi has said he personally favors negotiating the division of the country, following the example of Czechoslovakia's peaceful separation into two republics earlier this decade.

"I'd punch him out if I could," says Rosa Maria Viggiano, a legal intern from the southern port city of Brindisi. "What would the north do without the south? They provide the products and we provide the agriculture. For me, the unity of Italy is very important."

"Bossi's done good by putting the idea of federalism in the people's heads," adds Maria Pia Blasi, a job-hunting archeology graduate in Rome. "But if he continues with calls for secession, it could turn out to be a bomb that's difficult to defuse."

The federalism issue is deeply felt in the north. Mayors across the political spectrum in the northeast, home to Benetton clothiers and other successful businesses, have urged Prodi to act quickly in giving local administrations control over tax revenues.

"Either we really do federalism or, in the fundamental, most-productive areas of the country, those closest to Europe, a revolt will break out that will be difficult to control," writes Venice mayor Massimo Cacciari of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), in the latest issue of MicroMega, a journal of commentary.

Prodi's center-left government has not yet announced concrete steps toward decentralizing power. Prodi is due to unveil his full government program to the upper house of Parliament on Wednesday.

Yet the new Italian leader has said he would like to reshape Italy into a German-style federal republic. "The structure and organization of the German state are a good model for Italy," Prodi told Germany's Focus magazine in an interview to be published today, saying Italy might have adopted them had it been unified in a different era.

Italy's new government includes many high-profile figures. Outgoing Prime Minister Lamberto Dini returns as foreign minister and ex-Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi is treasury and budget minister.

Antonio Maccanico, who tried unsuccessfully to form a new government earlier this year, heads the postal ministry, which also regulates the country's television industry. The position could prove politically important as Italy lurches into a high-tech communications era.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who now leads the center-right opposition, owns three national television networks, a concentration of media power that the left has criticized in the past.

Crusading judge gets post

Another key figure in the new government is former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, whose probes into bribery and corruption earlier this decade brought an end to the careers of dozens of politicians.

Mr. Di Pietro's investigations also brought construction to a virtual halt in the country, with builders afraid to take on projects lest they be accused of accepting kickbacks. As public works minister, he says he hopes to relaunch the industry by introducing clear rules of play.

The list of ministers was announced in record time, 17 hours after Prodi received the charge to form the government. Nine of the 20 ministers under Prodi are from the PDS, the renamed and reconstituted Communist Party, which comes to power for the first time.

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