Berlusconi comes to rescue on Afghan mission


Premier Romano Prodi’s government survived a confidence vote, but with Communists in his coalition announcing they won’t back him on Afghanistan, he faced the prospect of having to depend on Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative opposition bloc to keep Italy’s troops in the NATO mission.

After squeaking by in the Senate confidence vote Wednesday night, Prodi’s center-left coalition must submit to a separate confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies, where lawmakers began debate Thursday morning. With a comfortable majority in the lower Chamber, Prodi is certain to win the confidence vote there, scheduled for Friday.

An opinion poll for Milan daily Corriere della Sera found that many Italians believe Prodi’s fractious coalition, which took office in May, will only last several more months.

The staunchly pro-U.S. Berlusconi pledged on Thursday to come to Prodi’s rescue on funding for the Afghan mission, which risked defeat in the Senate without votes from outside the government coalition.

Berlusconi said his center-right forces would vote to continue funding for Italy’s 1,800 troops in Afghanistan “because the country must be serious and have a clear, loyal policy toward its allies.”

Objections by Communists and Greens to the Afghan mission led to a key foreign policy defeat in the Senate, prompting Prodi to resign and forcing the confidence votes to allow his government to stay in office.

The 162-157 victory in the Senate inspired Justice Minister Clemente Mastella to compare the government to the Tower of Pisa. “It leans but it doesn’t fall,” said Mastella, who himself has differed at times with coalition allies.

In recent weeks, as squabbling increased in the government, the Christian Democrat walked out of a Cabinet meeting rather than vote in favor of a proposed law to give legal rights to unmarried couples, including homosexuals. The measure will now be taken up by Parliament.

Seeking to keep the lid on dissent in his coalition, Prodi insisted as a condition for continuing that ministers who don’t agree with him ultimately leave him the final word — no small feat for a country where balking by tiny parties has often brought down governments.

“The coalition has reached a strong, cohesive agreement,” Prodi told the Senate shortly before the confidence vote began. “We have the firm intention of moving forward.”

Prodi narrowly defeated Berlusconi in April elections, ousting the conservatives after five years in office. Opinion polls have shown Prodi’s forces slumping in popularity in recent weeks, with Berlusconi’s bloc keen on regaining power.

Berlusconi ruled out on Thursday that he might soon turn over the reins of the conservative bloc to any other center-right leader. The leader of a pro-Vatican party in the coalition, Pier Ferdinando Casini, has been saying it might be time for new leadership, amid suggestions he would be willing to take up the mantle.

“At 70 years of age, perhaps I deserve something else, to go to the movies, to enjoy my family more,” Berlusconi said on a state radio talk show. But “I am still here out of a sense of responsibility toward the voters and toward the country.”

Taking a swipe at possible rivals, he added: “I still don’t see a personality or a protagonist who can succeed in keeping the center-right united.”

Berlusconi’s first government fell after several months in 1994 after a troublesome ally proved unreliable. Berlusconi was elected to the premiership again in 2001, and managed to keep his coalition in power for the full five-year term of Parliament.

Among Prodi’s challenges is reforming Italy’s generous pension system, whose resources are increasingly strained in a society with a low birthrate and excellent longevity. But with far-left allies drawing much of their voter base from unions, reforms like raising retirement ages promise be a struggle.