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Last Updated: Friday, 29 April, 2005, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
What next for Silvio Berlusconi?

By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Silvio Berlusconi
Tired eyes: Mr Berlusconi threatened to give up politics
After winning his latest confidence vote this week in parliament, Silvio Berlusconi strolled out to lunch at a well-known Roman restaurant situated half-way between his home and his office.

But so many journalists, photographers and passers-by besieged him as his security men tried to hold them back, that the Italian prime minister said it would be the last time he would ever go walkabout in Rome.

The approval of his new coalition government in the lower house and the Senate formally brought to an end a political crisis which began earlier this month, but Mr Berlusconi's political future remains far from certain.

The billionaire leader is under siege not only from the public - when they can get near to him - but also from his coalition allies.

The leader of one of these, Marco Follini of the key small Christian Democrat Party, said he would support Mr Berlusconi's reshuffled government sworn in last weekend "only on a day-to-day basis".

One party

Such words cast serious doubt on the viability of the "Berlusconi Number Two government," which the prime minister has said he wants to keep going until the next general election due in about one year's time.

Either we move towards a single group ... or we let the country fall into more years of instability
Silvio Berlusconi
By pure chance, Marco Follini was already having lunch at the same restaurant chosen by Mr Berlusconi to celebrate his confidence vote victory and the official end of the latest government crisis in Rome.

A quick-thinking maitre d' seated them in separate rooms, as far away from each other as possible.

But this did not solve the dilemma which the prime minister has publicly posed by demanding that his coalition allies merge together into a single party to fight next year's general election.

Mr Berlusconi has now publicly threatened to give up politics altogether after 11 years and return to running his media businesses unless his main partners - the National Alliance, the Northern League, the Union of Christian Democrats - agree to merge with his own Forza Italia party.

Silvio Berlusconi, Dec 2004
Mr Berlusconi was cleared of corruption charges in December
How much this is political bluster and how much it reflects the prime minister's genuine growing disillusion with fragmented Roman politics is open to question.

The immediate prospects for the creation of a single, united Italian centre-right party do not look good, just as the possibility of a strong united opposition party emerging soon from the fragmented left appear equally remote.

But, as the authoritative political commentator Sergio Romano noted in a front page editorial in Thursday's Corriere della Sera, there is nothing necessarily sinister about Mr Berlusconi's declared aim of trying to create a single centre-right party out of the present coalition mess.

"Italian democracy would become more mature and efficient," Mr Romano wrote. "The battle for government would revolve around two great single parties. It would be a welcome simplification of the system."

"We would be spared the spectacle of wheeling and dealing by inconsequential leaders and party directorates."

Motivation

A senior minister in Mr Berlusconi's government has described the prime minister as "one of the most highly motivated individuals" he has ever met.

The secret of his political success in keeping together a government coalition for four years - longer than any Italian head of government since the end of World War II - seems to have lain in the application to politics of the acumen and ability to sell ideas that he showed building a personal fortune in his previous business career.

But many Italians believe that Mr Berlusconi's political downfall could lie in his perceived tendency to regard the running of the Italian state as an extension of his business empire without bothering to deal with the (to him) vexing question of conflict of interest. Mr Berlusconi is, after all, the wealthiest man in Italy.

Mr Berlusconi's allies are already openly talking about an alternative leader to fight Roman Prodi in next year's general election.

But the danger of Italy reverting to the short-lived "revolving door" governments of the past is something that even the prime minister's bitterest critics say they would not like to see.


SEE ALSO:
Berlusconi forms new government
23 Apr 05 |  Europe
Crisis talks under way in Italy
21 Apr 05 |  Europe
Q&A: Italy regional elections
01 Apr 05 |  Europe


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