Mon, 24 Apr 2000

Amato sets out to form center-left govt

By Gunther Kern

ROME (AFP): Giuliano Amato was nominated as Italy's new prime minister last Friday and now faces the task of putting together a viable coalition to rally enough votes to survive a confidence vote in the Italian parliament.

Amato said in a brief statement after formally accepting the mandate by President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi that his cabinet would be formed shortly and would have only a small number of ministers.

"Italy needs more competitiveness, more social cohesion, more justice," he said.

He said his government would be in place until the end of the legislature early next year and would move to have a new electoral law adopted giving the country more political stability.

Ciampi asked Amato, a respected economist, to end the five-day government crisis after the ruling center-left backed the outgoing treasury minister in the face of opposition calls for fresh elections.

"We have full confidence in him," said Fabio Mussi, parliamentary leader of the coalition's main partner, the Democrats of the Left.

Amato would have a "full and legitimate majority in parliament" which could meet as early as next week for a vote of confidence, after a three-day Easter break and Liberation Day, a national holiday which falls on Tuesday.

The formation of a new government will avert the need for fresh elections, demanded repeatedly by the opposition since the rout of former Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema's coalition in regional polls recently.

The defeat prompted D'Alema to resign last Wednesday.

Amato, 61, must now take up the challenge of leading the country for the remainder of the government's five-year term.

While his majority in parliament is expected to be slight, he may profit from improved economic indicators as the economy picks up pace, with figures for April indicating a check on inflation.

Theoretically, the center-left can count on the support of 322 deputies in the lower house of parliament, six more than needed to retain its majority.

In the Senate, on the other hand, the center-left has a rock- solid majority.

Main opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi argued that democracy was threatened by the formation of Amato's government, the center-left's fifth since general elections in April 1996.

"We must return to democratic rule," he said, pointing to massive gains by the center-right in last year's European elections and in the regional polls.

Berlusconi also brushed off Amato, a former socialist, no longer affiliated to any party, as the center-left's next "useful idiot" and alleged he would ultimately lose the confidence of the governing bloc.

"It must be clear that day after day we will treat Amato as a useful idiot who illegally occupies Palazzo Chigi against the will of the people," he said, referring to the premier's official residence.

Berlusconi later qualified his statement on public RAI 1 television, saying Amato was "an absolutely intelligent and well- prepared man."

Amato announced that he would "seek to establish a dialogue with the opposition."

The new government is expected to move rapidly to present a bill to parliament changing Italy's electoral law after a referendum on the issue next month.

The law currently favors small parties and adds to the country's political instability by giving tiny groups power to tilt the balance by making and breaking coalitions.

The referendum, scheduled for May 21, aims to do away with the system of electing parliamentary seats by proportional representation in favor of a British-style first-past-the-post vote, customary in Britain.

The bill should be in effect for next year's legislative elections.

But it carries a potential risk for Amato because its tendency to favor larger parties may alienate the smaller groups in his coalition.

While Amato is remembered by Italians for his brief premiership in 1992-1993 and for his financial competence, only 11.4 percent of people polled last Friday afternoon approved Ciampi's choice. Almost 60 percent said they were opposed to Amato's nomination.