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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 January 2008, 20:06 GMT
Something rotten in state of Italy
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome

Amid the mountains of rubbish that have been lining the streets of Naples, there is a strong sense that something has gone badly wrong in Italy.

It is a story symptomatic of the country's failure to deal with the cronyism and the rampant corruption in its midst.

Giant carnival masks represent PM Romano Prodi and former PM Silvio Berlusconi during a carnival parade on 20 Jan 08
Italians feel betrayed by their failing political system

Back in the early 1990s, prosecutors in Milan exposed the vast and systematic bribery within the biggest political parties.

Tangentopoli, as it was called, brought down the Christian Democrats and many within the ruling establishment.

As politicians faced prosecution, there were bold promises of a new and vibrant Second Republic.

Yet today, Italy remains one of the worst governed countries in Europe.

There was some progress in the early 1990s as Italy fought its way into the euro.

The success of the economic reforms that ensured it passed the various tests was widely attributed to the then Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

But by the time he returned to office in 2006, the Italian economy was in a nosedive, the recovery of the mid-1990s long forgotten.

He promised liberal reform, bringing together an unlikely coalition of nine squabbling parties.

It was a marriage of convenience between Catholics to the centre and communists on the far left.

But this week - amid allegations of more corruption - it all ended in messy divorce.

Mixed record

Clemente Mastella, the leader of a small Christian Democrat party, the Udeur, stood down as justice minister to concentrate on corruption allegations against him - and before long his party had announced they too were leaving the coalition.

Despite winning a vote of confidence in the lower house on Wednesday, Mr Prodi lost a similar vote in the Senate and will have to resign.

Total seats: 321
Majority needed: 161
Prodi's coalition: 155
Berlusconi's coalition: 156
Life senators: 7 (4 support Prodi)
Udeur: 3 (may abstain)

A cold analysis of Mr Prodi's two years in office shows there have been few successes.

Within his government, there were some extremely competent ministers. But with nine parties each vying for control of a government seat, every ministry had several deputies. The government is filled with hangers-on.

Nonetheless, Finance Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa forced through a belt-tightening budget for 2008 - with modest cuts in public spending.

But the more ambitious plans to liberalise the ailing economy were soon torpedoed by the far left.

Time and again, Mr Prodi was forced to compromise, trimming legislation to please his various suitors.

And with deep divisions on aspects of foreign policy, fiscal policy or pension reform - not to mention the almost uninterrupted slide of the prime minister and the government in the opinion polls - it was always a matter of when, not if, this coalition would collapse.

Waiting in the wings

On the streets, the people feel betrayed.

Their contempt for the ruling classes has been captured by satirical comedian Beppe Grillo.

Senate 6 Dec 07
The future of the PM's government lies in the hands of the Senate

His anti-establishment blog now receives 200,000 hits a day.

In September, he led this vast virtual community into the real world to hold protests across Italy.

Yet despite the public frustration, still popular on the centre-right is Italy's richest man - the not-so greying 71-year-old Silvio Berlusconi.

The former prime minister - ahead in the polls - is now banging the drum for spring elections.

It was his system of proportional representation rushed through three months before his government lost power that became the poisoned pill for the centre-left.

Critics say it took Italy back in time - ensuring there could only be government with a weak majority - and that tiny parties within it, with just a handful of votes, would hold disproportionate power.

There is growing consensus across opposition lines - and even among the small parties - that before any election can be held, the electoral laws must be changed again.

Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi during the confidence vote
Former PM Silvio Berlusconi has been calling for early elections

President Giorgio Napolitano will be forced to make a decision in the next few days.

He could ask Mr Prodi to form a new coalition with a limited checklist of "things to do".

He could call elections - but those in the know say it is much more likely he will appoint a caretaker government or a grand coalition to oversee this much-needed electoral reform.

With all the shifting loyalties common to Italian politics, it is all very chaotic

And at the moment, one feels Italy is left with a selection of poor choices.

The Italian business daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, summed up the mood perfectly on Wednesday: "There is an alarming distance separating the Italian political world and the economic reality in the rest of the country."

Italy's Prodi risks Senate vote
24 Jan 08 |  Europe
Italy PM faces confidence votes
22 Jan 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Italy
24 Jan 08 |  Country profiles

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