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Prodi regroups for a return

Times Staff Writer

Romano Prodi, forced to resign last week as Italy’s prime minister, will try to reassemble his government in a bid to rescue the nation from crippling political chaos, officials said Saturday.

Ending intense negotiations, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano asked Prodi to put together a new administration, which must then prove it has majority support by winning confidence votes in both houses of Parliament.

Napolitano, who spent the three days since Prodi’s surprise resignation consulting with various politicians, says he believes Prodi has sufficient backing from centrist and leftist parties to prevail.

“There was no concrete alternative,” Napolitano told reporters at the Quirinale presidential palace in explaining his decision. Holding elections would be too disruptive and counterproductive, he said.

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Speaking a few minutes later at the same venue, Prodi said, “I will present myself to Parliament as soon as possible, with the renewed impetus of a cohesive coalition determined to help the country at this difficult stage.”

Prodi’s center-right opponents, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, quickly rejected Napolitano’s decision and said they would fight the return of Prodi.

The 67-year-old former professor stunned the nation Wednesday when he quit after losing a parliamentary vote called to endorse his foreign policy. His 9-month-old government collapsed, falling victim largely to leftist allies who opposed Italy’s peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan and the expansion of U.S. military bases in Italy.

Prodi now will have to command the loyalty of those mutinous leftists and muster new support from centrists who have been lukewarm to his government.

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Analysts said they expected Prodi, who won elections last year by one of the most narrow margins in modern Italian history, could cobble together a Cabinet and win the confidence votes. But his longer-term prospects for survival are bleak because the country and its political establishment remain so profoundly divided, and a contentious electoral law that dilutes a ruling coalition’s power virtually guarantees instability.

“If everyone behaves, Prodi should have a majority -- for now. Then we wait until the next crisis,” said Franco Pavoncello, a political analyst and president of Rome’s John Cabot University.

Opposition leaders said returning Prodi to office would only prolong the “agony” of the nation.

“A government based on the treachery and the horse-trading of men is dead before it is born,” Luigi Vitali, a legislator from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, told reporters Saturday.

Prodi has received an important boost from a former Berlusconi ally, centrist Sen. Marco Follini, who told a leading Italian newspaper that he probably would cross the aisle in support of Prodi. He said he was tired of seeing a government held hostage by minority interests and wanted to help push the agenda toward the center.

Even among those Prodi allies whose votes or abstentions helped bring him down, there was surprise that his government collapsed so quickly. Most were more interested in making points than forcing political upheaval. Anger on the left was especially acute; one of the Communist senators who abstained was thrown out of his party and another was accosted by a man on a train who punched him on the nose.

Hoping to rein in desertions and impose discipline, Prodi used the crisis to require the parties in his coalition to swear allegiance to a 12-point platform. In it, the parties agree that the prime minister has the final word in any dispute. It also reaffirms support for Italy’s global role in NATO, including the Afghanistan mission.

Significantly, the document omitted several key points of what had been the coalition’s social program, including plans to grant legal rights to unmarried heterosexual couples and gays in same-sex unions. Those proposals were important to the left but had alienated centrist members of Parliament, where the Vatican continues to exert considerable influence.

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Prodi hopes his coalition’s approval of the platform will allow him to present a united front and attract more centrist support, including from the “senators-for-life,” seven elder statesmen who are unelected but have votes.

Leftists were disillusioned by the pact. For now, however, they seem to have united behind Prodi out of concern that toppling the government would pave the way for a return of Berlusconi. Polls before Prodi’s resignation and since have indicated Berlusconi could be reelected if the vote were held now.

“They know that if they continue to play games, we head back to elections and possibly another five years of Berlusconi,” said Pavoncello, the analyst. “That’s the last thing they want.”

The five-year Berlusconi administration, which Prodi unseated in last year’s elections, gave Italy a political stability unprecedented in its post-World War II history. But it also oversaw long periods of economic decline. Under Prodi, the economy had begun a tentative recovery, which would be threatened if the country were to languish in political uncertainty.

Napolitano, the president, said most political parties agreed with him that elections should not be held until a reform of Italy’s controversial electoral law, seen by many here as a recipe for the country’s tradition of fractious, revolving-door governments -- 60 in the last 61 years. It forces election winners to forge large, sometimes unwieldy coalitions and enables tiny parties to thwart legislation.

Any new government is going to face divisive issues that could quickly undermine it. Italy is in need of major, painful economic reforms to modernize its suffocating bureaucracy and enhance its ability to compete in the global market. Funding has to be authorized for the Afghanistan mission. And revision of the electoral law, too, would be hard fought.

Survival of the government “is not just a matter of numbers but of policies,” former President Francesco Cossiga told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. “The solution does not guarantee a stable government.”

wilkinson@latimes.com

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