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Opposition vows protests in streets

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ROME — Conservative opposition leaders yesterday threatened to bring "millions" of demonstrators into Rome's streets if President Giorgio Napolitano does not call immediate elections in the wake of the collapse of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's center-left coalition.

Mr. Napolitano had a third day of consultations with leaders of political parties from across the spectrum to try to fill the power vacuum left after Mr. Prodi, 68, resigned last week after his defeat in a parliamentary vote of confidence.

Opposition leaders, spearheaded by billionaire media mogul and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, are demanding a vote as early as April for a contest that Mr. Berlusconi, 72, believes would return him to power.

But Mr. Napolitano, a former communist, is under pressure from Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, the head of the newly formed left-wing Democratic Party, who wants an interim government named before any elections.

Such a government would institute reforms to replace the proportional representation system that now favors Italy's small parties — and is seen as key to Mr. Berlusconi's chances. Mr. Napolitano is expected to announce his decision tonight or tomorrow.

Mr. Prodi's nine-party government collapsed after he lost the support of one of its members, the Catholic Udeur party. Some commentators saw the Vatican's hand behind the latest crisis because of church disapproval of support in the government coalition for legislation favoring homosexual marriage.

Mr. Prodi, however, had become unpopular after he failed to quickly resolve a crisis over trash collection in Naples, where mounds of trash have been rotting in the street for months.

The situation sparked clashes between police and the public, attracting international press attention, which was seen by many Italians as a source of national shame.

Mr. Berlusconi reiterated a threat to bring millions of supporters to Rome to demonstrate for early elections if Mr. Napolitano does not dissolve parliament after ending his consultations today.

The conservative National Alliance leader, Gianfranco Fini, also urged an early election when he met Mr. Napolitano yesterday, as did Umberto Bossi, the leader of the devolutionist Northern League. Mr. Bossi cautioned that his frustrated supporters were ready to stage a "revolution" if they could not quickly achieve change through the ballot box.

Leaders of Italy's hard-line Communist Re-foundation Party called the threats to organize mass protests "disturbing intimidation" of Mr. Napolitano, but Berlusconi spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti denied there was anything sinister about the tycoon's strategy.

"The people are ready to go into the piazzas to ask for elections, but anybody who considers this an uprising is being overdramatic," he said. He charged that the left is afraid of fighting an immediate campaign.

Mr. Veltroni, for his part, called for "a national assumption of responsibility" to overhaul the electoral system with elections to be held "within eight, 10, 12 months."

Mr. Berlusconi is meeting Mr. Napolitano today but already has started campaigning with a 17-point program, including tax cuts and a crackdown on crime. The program was proclaimed in the newspaper Il Giornale, which is owned by the Berlusconi family.

An opinion poll in the leading Corriere della Sera newspaper last week showed the center-left would take 42.4 to 45 percent of the vote if an election were held now, compared with 54.5 to 57.6 percent for Mr. Berlusconi's center-right.

One of the reasons Mr. Berlusconi wants an early election is so he can try to use his longstanding friendship with President Bush to impress Italian voters, political sources say.

Sergio Romano, writing for the Corriere della Sera, predicted that "the winner is Silvio Berlusconi, the leader who for the last year and a half has called for parliament to be dissolved."

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