- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

ROME (AP) — Silvio Berlusconi is promising to clean up the trash in Naples, save Alitalia airlines and revive the economy. But some fear the new premier will pander to his conservative political base and an anti-immigrant coalition partner rather than confront Italy’s woes.

As congratulations came pouring in today, including from President Bush and French leader Nicolas Sarkozy, the charismatic media magnate said he would waste no time in getting to work.

He will trim the Cabinet to 12 ministers, half the number in the outgoing center-left government, and has announced his selection for some key posts, including economics and foreign minister.

His list of priorities starts with clearing away the mountains of trash that have piled up in Naples since last year, after dumps filled up and efforts to open new ones were blocked by local protests.

Berlusconi also has set an ambitious agenda of structural reforms to streamline the lawmaking process and jump-start the sluggish economy.

“I want to go down in the history of this country as the statesman who has changed it,” he said.

He has the numbers to implement his agenda in his third try in the premiership. He has a significant majority in both houses of parliament, which for the first time since World War II does not include what was once western Europe’s largest communist party or the Socialists who had been in governing coalitions for decades.

Berlusconi’s conservative bloc commands a majority of about 40 seats in the Senate (compared to the one-seat edge of his predecessor, Romano Prodi) and some 100 lawmakers in the lower house.

The coalition is also, at least on paper, more cohesive since it lost a centrist ally that proved troublesome in the past.

But Berlusconi will face demands from the volatile Northern League party, an ally that had a better-than-expected showing in the election and is crucial to ensuring the Senate majority —giving it critical leverage.

“Now we need to implement reforms. If not, we will lose our patience,” Northern League leader Umberto Bossi said in an interview with Turin-based newspaper La Stampa.

The league wants tougher immigration rules and zero-tolerance on crime, and it demands greater autonomy for Italy’s wealthy north, including control over tax money.

Despite his victory, Berlusconi has refrained from indulging in celebration and instead is maintaining a sober tone.

“Difficult months and years await us, and I’m getting ready to govern with the utmost commitment,” Berlusconi said last night, hours after his victory.

Italy is verging on recession — if it is not there already — with consumer spending at a low and zero growth forecast by the International Monetary Fund this year.

While business leaders said the clear majority gives Berlusconi room to push through necessary reforms without political compromise, some analysts feared the margins might entice Berlusconi into doing as he pleases.

In his last government, he spent freely to boost the economy — and he could go that route again in the search for quick fixes.

“I think he is going to be more closely watched this time,” said Edward Hughes, an economist in Barcelona, Spain. “If there are any signs that Berlusconi is not going to introduce reforms and is going to simply pander to the electoral base and spend more money, I think the financial markets can start to put pressure on Italy.”

In 2001, Berlusconi won the election with promises of delivering a “new economic miracle.” But critics accused him of spending most of his time passing laws to boost his business interests and help him escape criminal prosecution for a number of charges, including corruption.

He reformed labor and pension systems to ease restrictions on firing workers and raise the retirement age, but the measures were watered down following union protests and analysts said they did not go far enough.

Berlusconi also defied widespread anti-war sentiment in Italy and sent 3,000 soldiers to Iraq. The contingent was withdrawn after Berlusconi lost the last election, but he has ruled out sending troops back Iraq.

In the end, Berlusconi’s record during the five-year term was largely seen as disappointing.

He said last night that he is a different man from 2001 “because by now I know everything and I can prioritize things.”

To implement his ambitious goals this time, Berlusconi is not only looking at the economy.

He says Italy’s image, tarred by the Naples trash crisis, needs to be restored, and its international profile raised.

He insists Italy cannot afford to lose its national air carrier and says the tourism business would be hurt if Air France-KLM succeeds in its bid to buy Alitalia.

Berlusconi is looking at the decision-making process in parliament and at the cost of Italy’s many layers of government.

He wants to cut the number of national lawmakers from the current 945 in parliament’s two houses and have laws approved only by one house rather than two. He also wants to reduce spending by eliminating provincial governments.

“There is a clear majority and Berlusconi has no alibis this time,” said former ally Pier Ferdinando Casini.

Associated Press writer Colleen Barry contributed to this report.


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