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Talks begin in Italy government crisis

Italy's Senate speaker began talks on Thursday aimed at finding enough consensus to overhaul the country's election rules before voters go to the polls again.

world Updated: Feb 01, 2008 03:33 IST

Italy's Senate speaker began talks on Thursday aimed at finding enough consensus to overhaul the country's election rules before voters go to the polls again.

Senate president Franco Marini was tapped Wednesday evening by Italy's president for what Marini himself described as a "heavy" job. He acknowledged there is little time to line up enough backing among political leaders for an interim government that would have one main task: electoral reform to limit the weight tiny parties have in Italy's coalitions.

Last week, a tiny centrist ally helped bring down Romano Prodi's 20-month-old center-left government, which lost a Senate confidence vote because of defections. Prodi resigned and is staying on in a caretaker role until a new government is in place. Marini began formal consultations Thursday afternoon by meeting with leaders of Italy's smaller parties. Talks with larger parties will last until early next week.

Going into the talks, Marini told reporters would seek "broad consensus ... to see if we can, in a brief time, succeed in changing the electoral law."

With Italy's president effectively ruling out efforts to form a new government with any staying power, parliamentary elections roughly three years ahead of schedule appear inevitable. Italians are waiting to learn just when they will vote and under what set of rules.

Conservative opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi is demanding that elections be held as soon as possible. Opinion polls show his center-right bloc holding a lead of as much as a 10 percentage points over the center-left coalition that ended his five-year tenure as premier in 2006.

President Giorgio Napolitano and several other leaders have said they would prefer to have Italians vote under revised rules aimed at lessening the chances that tiny parties would get disproportionate weight in future coalition governments.

Former Premier Lamberto Dini, one of the defectors who helped sink Prodi, was among a handful of centrists indicating they might support Marini's efforts but he was pessimistic. Given the refusal of Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party is Parliament's biggest, to accept anything but an immediate call to the polls, "I don't believe that (Marini) will pull it off," Dini was quoted as saying in the La Repubblica daily newspaper. Any interim government would have to win required confidence votes in Parliament.

News reports said Marini's consultations with political leaders over the next few days should make it clear soon if there is consensus on an interim government.

Before his political career took off, Marini, 74, led a politically influential labor confederation close to the Christian Democrats who dominated Italy for decades after World War II. A Berlusconi coalition partner, the Northern League, said it would boycott Marini's talks. And another Berlusconi ally, right-wing leader Gianfranco Fini, called Marini's efforts doomed. Parliament so far has failed in enacting reform, with disagreement on the minimum percentage of vote parties would need to win seats.

Walter Veltroni, Rome's mayor and the center-left leader likely to square off against Berlusconi in the next elections, on Wednesday pitched for a few more months of this legislature to enact the reforms. Prodi has said he will not run again.